What #OccupyWallStreet is about

by Jon Lebkowsky

#OccupyWallStreet is just the sort of movement I’ve been expecting. It’s a true grassroots movement catalyzed and sustained by social media (which is probably crucial, as I explained in an earlier post). While there is an overriding agenda about economic justice, OWS represents a diversity of interests and concerns. It’s a working class phenomenon, but it includes both blue collar and white collar workers, many of them newly unemployed. These are the statistics that corporations ignore when they cut jobs and strip healthcare benefits. These are people who heard a promise throughout their lives and saw it shattered to dust over the last decade. These are people who have created much of the value that millionaires and billionaires have captured and stashed in their Swiss bank accounts. These are honest, hardworking swimmers who didn’t see the sharks coming until it was too late.

Remember Frank Capra’s film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” where an ordinary guy played by James Stewart takes on Washington corruption? Sending a true-blue Mr. Smith to Washington didn’t work to his advantage, the level of corruption almost took him down. What happens, though, if you have an army of idealistic, straight-shooting Mr. Smiths who actually believe that the system should work for everybody, not just the wealthiest 1%? To me the Occupy movement is that army, and they’re occupying not Washington D.C., but Wall Street, which has become the real seat of power as corporations ascend and governments weaken.

I saw a talk last night by David Cobb, a former shrimper and construction worker who got his law degree in 1993 and was the Green Party’s presidential candidate in 2004. He’s currently active with MoveToAmend.org, and organization that seeks an amendment to abolish the concept of corporate personhood, arguing that corporations never should have been assigned the rights normally assigned to a person in the first place. Why is this a problem? The biggest issue currently is the assertion of a corporation’s Constitutional right to contribute to political campaigns. The question is the extent to which corporate power and influence over government should be limited. Cobb’s argument was that the supposed American democracy is not really “of, by, and for the people” because corporations are making and enforcing (through influence) decisions that we should be making together. What’s an example? One might be the complex of government decisions connected with the recent “too big to fail” financial crisis and bailouts, including weakened regulation of banking and credit card industries. It’s the financial crisis, and more so the response to it, and resulting loss of jobs and benefits, that’s brought diverse citizens to the streets in the “Occupy” movement. Also, for that matter, it was an inspiration for the formation of the Tea Party on the right side of the fence.

Like Cobb, I don’t think the issue is the idea of the corporation, of people coming together to create an entity to accomplish something, like building a business or fulfilling a not for profit mission. The problem is an imbalance of power and influence, and the growing sense that a few rule the many. Most of us grew up believing in something called democracy, which is difficult to achieve and too easy to game. Cobb pointed out that there’s been a democratization trend – more and more people assigned the rights of a person, women minorites, etc. But at the same time there’s a corporatist trend, a kind of gentler version of what we used to call fascism, that has been growing and is currently ascendant and taking as much power as possible.

I don’t think it’s too radical for the people to demand their rights as persons and as citizens, and assert those rights against the rights of “legal fictions,” i.e. corporations. But (as I posted in Facebook and Google+ earlier), we have to stop feeling outraged and start feeling a tranquil and firm sense of empowerment. That’s what I think I’m seeing in the OWS demonstrations so far.

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