where the writers are
Occupy Wall Street/LA and beyond

I attended the Occupy LA action on Saturday, October 1 at City Hall. What follows is a recent post of mine at Open Salon about the Occupy Wall Street actions and the related popular upsurges worldwide.  

I've been to many demonstrations in my life, including some in the 1960s' era. This is the first demonstration since the 1960s that looked and felt like the 1960s because there were a) so many young people (upwards of 85%) and b) because the cutting edge of the demands was so pointed. The importance of this new youthful upsurge - a new generation coming into political motion - cannot be overestimated. It is extremely refreshing and could change everything.

As I was riding the bus to the demonstration I met two other young people going to the demonstration. They had heard about it from following the news about Occupy Wall Street and they talked about how terrible the prospects are for their job and educational lives and the situation for their family and others. Both of them are white. One fellow was perhaps in his late twenties or early thirties and has been out of work for a year. His training is in fashion design. The other 99% 'er (he had made his own sign for his shirt) is a senior in high school. They were fed up.

I think that the equivalent today of the draft of the Vietnam era that helped to bring people into the anti-war movement might be the terrible job market and educational options for young people today. They are being attacked on two ends - those who are out looking for work are finding it nearly impossible to find anything, even with a college degree - and those who want to try to improve their life through education are finding it harder and harder or outright impossible to go to school because of cutbacks. Even if you can get into classes, the predatory student loan lending is so rapacious and leaves many of those who have gone beyond high school with huge debt.

The law schools are a particularly egregious example of this, churning out law school graduates, raising law school tuition and fees relentlessly, and misrepresenting and playing games with their "employed graduate" numbers.

Recently the size of credit card debt was exceeded by student loan debt. I have also written essays about the terrible things that are being done to education in the name of assessment and accountability. The people who are pushing this agenda are not, in many instances, educators. Many of them have never taught anyone in a class at any level. But whether they have that experience or not, their agenda is to turn education into an assembly line process and to deprofessionalize teaching and turn teachers into merely content providers. This is ruining the educational system, but these "reformers" aren't fundamentally interested in people becoming educated and especially in their becoming critical thinkers. Critical thinking can make people unhappy with what's going on. And we can't have that, can we?

At the rally I spoke at length with two young women who had had to abandon their desires for college because the money wasn't there, even in grants and loans. One of them told me that her grandmother had always told her that she should make her life count for something. She said that if she was going to die anyway that she wanted her life to be meaningful and that she was willing to die for the revolutionary changes that she saw needed to happen. She had hoped that Obama would be something else, but like so many others now, it's clear that he isn't something different. I told them that if you analyzed what he said during the campaign carefully it was clear that he wasn't what so many people mistakenly thought he was going to be and they agreed.

As one indicator of the promise and momentousness of this movement, the right wing media are besides themselves with venom towards it.

In a September 27, 2011 New York Times article entitled “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe” Nicholas Kulish writes of these popular worldwide eruptions:

“Their complaints range from corruption to lack of affordable housing and joblessness, common grievances the world over. But from South Asia to the heartland of Europe and now even to Wall Street, these protesters share something else: wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic [sic] political process they preside over.

“They are taking to the streets, in part, because they have little faith in the ballot box. ‘Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,’ said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. ‘We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.’”

Noting that the Arab Spring uprisings are not that dissimilar to these upsurges of actual popular movements from the grassroots, Kulish correctly identifies the shift in mood:

“In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991, a consensus emerged that liberal economics combined with democratic institutions represented the only path forward. That consensus, championed by scholars like Francis Fukuyama in his book ‘The End of History and the Last Man,’ has been shaken if not broken by a seemingly endless succession of crises — the Asian financial collapse of 1997, the Internet bubble that burst in 2000, the subprime crisis of 2007-8 and the continuing European and American debt crisis — and the seeming inability of policy makers to deal with them or cushion their people from the shocks.”

Of course, that “consensus” was never truly a consensus but the accepted wisdom of the so-called experts, the media and its pundits, corporate heads, and public officialdom. By this point, however, the indifference, callousness and corruption of those elites are glaringly and inescapably evident everywhere. The gambit by the Democratic Party and other elites of the "man of change," Barack Obama, does not play so well today, when his cravenness before Wall Street - which gave candidate Obama at least $20 million more than to John McCain because Wall Street knew that Obama wasn’t going to do what he claimed he’d do during the campaign - and the military industrial complex has been demonstrated over and over again since 2008. The existing leaders’ and their parties’ inability to deal with these crises are also something that will not go away, for the crises themselves are a direct and inescapable product of capitalism/imperialism.

The millions in this country and the billions worldwide who are suffering from unemployment, underemployment, and lack of necessities are not doing so because they suddenly became unwilling to work. These crises are due to the fact that capitalism will not employ people and will not do certain tasks unless they can make enough profits on it. If they can make more money by taking advantage of tiny differences in prices for commodities and futures markets and can make a killing on being parasites between doctors and their patients through HMOs and by raking in commissions for sales of mortgages and derivatives, then that’s where the money is going to flow, not to needs such as people’s need for housing, health care, safe and healthy food, stable employment, a regular paycheck, and so on. This predatory behavior when matched up against the neoliberal economists of the Wall Street Journal who pillory public employees as "takers" and laud the "makers" (I fail to see how economists are "makers," by the way) such as finance bankers, makes me want to laugh (or shake my fist, depending upon my mood). Recessions and depressions are not inevitabilities, acts of god, or any other such nonsense. Recessions and depressions did not exist before the onset of capitalism. These are crises of capital and that alone.

And as I have written in my new book, Globalization and the Demolition of Society, the people in charge and their electoral systems are reflective of that basic power relationship between capital and labor. How could they be anything else? How could you have vast and growing gaps between the corporations (with more than half of the largest economic entities in the world being companies, not countries) and the rest of the people, and not have a political system that reflects that fundamental disparity of power and wealth?

In my book’s introduction I cite as an example of this the case of neoliberal Michael Kinsley, writing in the Washington Post, who was defending his friend Lawrence Summers when Summers (former World Bank President and former president of both Kinsley and my alma mater, Harvard) rightly came under fire for a memo that he signed off on when he was World Bank President in which he argued that toxic dumps should be exported to Third World countries. (I had a passing relationship to Kinsley when we were both at Harvard in overlapping years. I knew his sister at Radcliffe).

First, an excerpt from Michael Kinsley’s defense of Summers, then my commentary on it:

[Lawrence] Summers's main point was that life and health are worth less in poor countries than in rich ones. He measured that worth by the earnings lost when a person is sick or dies prematurely. But another good measure, maybe clearer, would be the amount a society will spend to save a life. Treatments that are routine in the United States, although they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, are simply not available to citizens of poor countries. You get cancer and you die. Of course this should not be true, but it undeniably is true, and rejecting the idea of poor countries earning a little cash by “buying” pollution from rich ones will do nothing to make it less true.

If an industrial plant that causes pollution is going to be built somewhere, it ought to be built where life is worth less. This sounds brutal, but it is not. Or rather, it is less brutal than reality. Turn it around: If a life is worth less, it is also cheaper to save. For what we spend in the United States to save a single life, you could save dozens or hundreds of lives in poor countries. So if the plant is going to be built somewhere, building it in a poor country will enable more lives to be saved than building it in a rich one. . . .

If a city in a rich country is very polluted and a city the same size in a poor country is not, you will save lives—in the rich country this time—if some of that pollution can be moved from the rich country to the poor one. And the money the rich country pays the poor one can save even more lives in the poor country.

The general point is that clean air and other environmental goods are luxuries. The richer a country is, the more of them it can afford. And if rich countries like the United States had had to meet some of the standards being wished upon poor countries today, we would still be poor ourselves.

Every economic transaction has two sides. When you deny a rich country the opportunity to unload some toxic waste on a poor one, you are also denying that poor country the opportunity to get paid for taking the toxic waste. And by forbidding this deal, you are putting off the day when the poor country will no longer need to make deals like this.[i] [Emphasis added.]

Is the worth of a life really measurable by a person’s earnings? If this is so, then the life of Larry Ellison, who made over $330,000 a day in 2009, is worth far more than yours or mine. There is so much that is so wrong in Summers and Kinsley’s logic here that I could write a small book untangling and tracing the threads of callous indifference in the guise of cold, hard economic logic embodied in this short passage. In fact, Kinsley’s apologia could serve as the reason in microcosm for the book you are now reading.

Many people would recoil at Kinsley and Summers’ assertions, as they should. The outcry against Summers was one of the reasons why Summers, who was being floated as Obama’s Treasury Secretary, was not appointed by Obama to that post; instead he was appointed to head Obama’s Counsel of Economic Advisors, a less visible post. Kinsley avoids the obvious point that a poor country that accepts a toxic dump from a rich country is trading dollars to supposedly save some people’s lives while at the same time encouraging more deaths and injuries. How does increasing the death toll in a poor country help to lower the death toll in that country? Given the uneven trading terms between rich countries and poor countries, a “fair market value” return to a poor country for allowing a toxic dump on its turf would be disadvantageous to the poor country. This means that the tradeoff for the increased mortality and suffering from the toxins, whose long-term impacts are not well-known and difficult to measure, would not be commensurate with the damage to the poor country’s people. Instead, the exporting of a toxic dump to a poor country reflects the larger trend of the dominance of poor countries by the rich.

Even if Kinsley’s twisted logic were valid, it relies upon an invalid assumption, that the people in charge of using the money from the toxic dump’s relocation on their land will allocate that money to save other people’s lives. Anyone who knows even a little bit about how elites in third world countries usually operate knows that this assumption is not valid. Certainly any country that would accept toxic dump material from a rich country is not going to be a country led by elites who care about their people. Finally, Kinsley states that the “general point is that clean air and other environmental goods are luxuries.”

This is really quite interesting. If we did not know this comment’s context and the author’s intent, we could reasonably believe that his statement was meant as an indictment of industrial, capitalist society. According to his reasoning, prior to the industrial revolution or in some of the unindustrialized areas still left in the world, clean air and water were/are unavailable. If you do not have the bucks then you get to live like the people depicted in the Schwarzenegger film Total Recall in which polluted air causes people to develop physical abnormalities. As peculiar as this might sound, to capitalism’s most fervent acolytes it just makes sense that life on this planet should only be non-toxic for the rich. The poor countries, as everyone knows, are surely more polluted than the rich countries. The Amazon Rain Forest, goodness knows, is famously more polluted than Houston or Los Angeles. And the waters of the spectacular Iguaçu, bordering Argentina and Brazil, are dirtier than the Hudson River. Why simply everyone knows that!

The fact that Kinsley is a regular columnist in the Washington Post (and not some crackpot whose extreme views are dismissed and marginalized from the mainstream discourse) and that his reasoning reflects the dominant paradigm in the US today, reveal the toxicity of the prevailing neoliberal paradigm. Kinsley, incidentally, was the designated “liberal” on CNN’s Crossfire for many years. With “liberals” such as Kinsley, who needs conservatives? Marie Antoinette’s indifference to the conditions of her people was one of the factors that led those people (whose lives were worth less than those of the monarchy) to revolt. Perhaps Summers and Kinsley’s callous indifference could provoke something similar in our time? Might the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt be harbingers? (Pp. 25-27)

Indeed, they have turned out to be harbingers and we are seeing around us the incipient revolts outside of the Arab world that I was anticipating with impatience.

In Chapter Five of my book, “Why Voting Isn’t the Solution: The Problem with Democratic Theory” I put forth the reasons why democracy as people generally understand it has never lived up to and will never live up to what people expect it to be and why, in particular, this is because democratic theory itself is flawed. I urge you to read it because while these popular upsurges are happening, as the reality of the betrayal and indifference to the people’s welfare is dramatically evident – and getting worse – the exact reasons why this is happening and what must be done to fundamentally alter that must be understood much more deeply and widely if we are to really forge a radically different future from the system that now dominates and endangers the world. A companion website to the book is being constructed at DennisLoo.com. Please check it out!