Occupy Wall Street: Challenges, Privileges and Futures

Saswat Pattanayak

“He who tells the people revolutionary legends,
he who amuses them with sensational stories,
is as criminal as the geographer
who would draw up false charts for navigators.”

HPO Lissagaray, “History of the Paris Commune of 1871” (1877)

The challenges to Occupy Wall Street are many. Some even more critical than the very issues the protestors are fighting against. Whereas it claims to be the 99%, yet the movement practices the age-old privileges of class and race blindness. Similar to most white liberal movements, the OWS is hardly inclusive of the people of colour. Although the spirit is radical and the intent is revolutionary, the movement itself suffers from a lack of critical understanding on how race and class intersect. In reality, 99% of people do not form a class in themselves. This is because the 99% of population comprise a significant amount of aspiring rich, a “middle class” category of people who have steadfastly refused to side with the poor working class whenever the latter has organised itself. In the US, this segment of opportunistic liberal citizens have always believed in the country’s racist foundations, its heritage of exclusionary democracy, and its segregated educational system, and amply benefited from patriotic allegiances. And as a result, they have lent unconditional supports to electoral reforms that sustain an individualistic social order, to corporate policies that help private business thrive, to political outfits such as the Democratic Party in recent times, which upholds the status quo in every level of governance defining American imperialism.


Whither Class Struggle?

In the current romanticised version of revolutionary zeal at the Wall Street protests, there is a marked denial on part of the “General Assembly” of the movement that it could be perceived as supportive of the status quo. Proudly boasting of a movement without specific goals and leaders, the movement publishes formal newspapers and handouts clearly stating its disavowal of “Tea Party” right-wing movements. Not only is the OWS appearing left-wing and liberal – a political lineage that may not find endorsement among the 99% of people – it is also claiming to be without ideologies and specific goals. OWS is in a state of denial that anarchism of various forms are themselves ideologies, and the organisers of the movements are their leaders, the money which enables publications of the “Occupied Wall Street Journal” has sources to its sponsors. If rejection of current economic situation is the inspiration for the movement, the rejection of the current economic situation is the goal.


Calling the 99 percent

The biggest challenge for the OWS is to humbly acknowledge that it is a movement driven by a specific ideology which refuses the use of violence as a revolutionary tool, demands increased taxes for the rich, envisions student debt relief, opposes the Tea Party politicians, demands “direct democracy” as a political approach, and has raised over a half a million dollars within a couple of weeks to fund its campaign. And, it has allowed MoveOn, a multimillion dollar partisan initiative to speak on behalf of OWS to the media. The Occupy project has organisers who decide when the General Assembly will take place, which celebrity will address them, which entertainers will put up shows, which specific websites will be declared “official”, which post-box addresses the charity checks will be received at, and what heads will the money be spent on. Despite massive financial assets, when the OWS refuses to replace the drums of an activist which was destroyed at the protests, it is unilaterally decided by the specific organisers.

In their postmodernist hues, when political movements decry ideologies, refuse to take sides on political issues and pretend to distance themselves from power struggles, they smack of redundancy at best, and hypocrisy, at worst. When the educated youths refuse to acknowledge their race and class prerogatives, and claim that their movements let everyone have equal voice, it speaks of the gravely misplaced understanding of how freedom of speech is interlaced with entitlements. If the Occupy movement has not attracted majority of Black and Latino people into its fold, it is a sad reflection of how the movement has failed to address the needs of the most oppressed while boasting of representing them.


Seeking Wider Audience

People of colour are disproportionately incarcerated, disenfranchised, and unemployed in the United States. There is a rigid American class society in place ever since the country was founded. And yet, “class” as a realistically oppressive concept is seldom discussed in the country. Without any necessary critiques of the class society, majority of white liberals almost never understand their hidden privileges. They unequivocally endorse similar newspapers, television channels and textbooks that are inherently biased against class and race analysis. They invariably exalt founding fathers who owned slaves, presidents who denied racial disparities, and swear by the prison-military-industrial complex of the largest imperialistic society in history of humanity. OWS is based on the primary notion that the American society was absolutely democratic and fulfilling until Reagan spoilt the show. If they tried to include black people who suffered the brutality of every presidential regime in American history, the Occupy movement would not be wishing for the American democratic model to continue while singling out Wall Street.


Work Assignment Activism

Occupy Wall Street has every possibility of becoming its own nemesis. A separation of economy from politics of the day is naive and reactionary. Merely opposing a bunch of corporate houses in the Wall Street without disrupting the political climate in Washington DC is a hopeless distraction. Calling for arms may or may not be a suitable alternative to political misrule, but to clearly disavow any use of violence while calling for “revolution” is a utopian approach. In fact, just around the time when majority of Americans were clearly fed up and were beginning to demonstrate repressed anger with the entire political establishment, when a Malcolm X demand for replacement of the existing political economy by “any means necessary” was going to be a possibility; a movement that preaches nonviolence and targets a few corporate houses as the only stumbling blocks in the path to progress while giving the Democratic Party and its fundraisers a space within its platform either defies progressive logic, or works towards crushing collective demands for concrete replacements at the corridors of power, in lieu of possible electoral gains in the coming year.


The usual occupiers

The problem with a movement such as OWS is that majority of white liberals who protest at Wall Street do not live in coloured neighbourhoods, nor do they acknowledge that they have any similarities with the poor working class of the country, the homeless and the destitute of America, the black families whose children are imprisoned without trials, the Latino construction workers whose health issues are not covered by any insurance corporations that the otherwise liberal Democratic Party leaders have been receiving donations from. Yet, year after year when neglected teenagers from minority communities are routinely murdered and assaulted and detained without justice, most white liberals refuse to show up at demonstrations led by minority leaders to challenge the police state. The OWS should be a venue for rendering apologies with an effort to seek supports of lesser privileged comrades, not as a self-proclaimed glorified uniqueness in the history of protest movements.


Not so inclusive general assembly

Serious issues have been affecting the majority of people in America; they are all for real. They have been well known crisis, nothing abstract to articulate for months on. The tall claims for forming “consensus” through direct democracy are also without merit considering that a huge majority of people that are apparently being represented by the OWS, are the very folks who are not privileged enough to join the “General Assembly”; and timely decisions must be taken on behalf of them without waiting for any consensus. This demands for organised leaderships charting out the most pressing – and therefore, known – issues affecting the most oppressed.


Krishna Consciousness occupying the Wall Street!

For instance, unemployment crisis is neither new nor shocking for the people of colour in this country. Racism is alive and thriving at an institutional level. And demonstrations and marches have been carried out by black people in this country against unjustified administrative policies concerning wars, atrocities, discrimination, and immigration procedures. People of colour vastly are drafted into the military facilitated by an economic system that has failed to work for them from the days of slavery. It is not a mere coincidence that Wall Street is not controlled by racial minorities. In fact, it is a common knowledge that capitalism was founded by plantation/slave economies.


Music to Pacify

That, the majority of working class folks of colour who survive by dodging random bullets in their abjectly neglected neighbourhoods shall suddenly identify with the rich spoilt educated group of youngsters that abruptly woke up to an accidental American nightmare while having always lived amidst downtown luxuries remaining predictably clueless on specific demands of a movement, is an insensitive expectation. That, the “illegal aliens” from the restaurant kitchens owned by overprivileged “citizens” who are upholding American flags at the Occupy Wall Street, will somehow join this movement to sing glories of “First Amendment” rights of the liberals selectively granted by a Constitution that refuses to recognise people in dire despair as full human beings, is utterly inconsiderate a demand.

A movement which fails to adequately address the needs of the most oppressed among the oppressed is a movement that somehow must end up diluting the most basic needs of the society with the peripherals. Such a movement can only enhance general cynicism, which is certainly a desirable wake-up call, but transformative revolutions that address the roots and not just symptoms call for agenda-driven optimism, armed organisations for self-defence, and principled leaderships with theorised visions that must replace political economies which have failed their subjects for hundreds of years.


Political Alternative?

Occupy Wall Street has the same potential of evolving into a revolution as countless other marches across the globe. The first American peoples’ revolution would have well begun, if occupations had inculcated limitless revolutionary imaginings, duly recognised the possible sparks, drew the most oppressed to clearly charted out radical visions in a timely manner, dissociated itself from the very political parties and electoral systems which have historically facilitated capitalism and phony democracies,

After all, there are no surprises in revolutions. They are historical necessities.

Wall Street Spring: Americans Demand Democracy

Saswat Pattanayak

The homeless and the Hippies, the socialists and the students, the communists and the commoners – the Wall Street has been occupied for good by the countless human beings demanding dignity of life denied to them under American capitalism. Every disenfranchised minority is now decrying the citadel of private capital, greed and monstrosity. And contrary to White House assertions and corporate media verdicts, the defamed Wall Street has been denied a bail-out – by the people of the United States.

Braving the NYPD interventions and assaults, seeking solidarity with the otherwise indifferent bystanders, and hoping that the collective aspirations of the oppressed masses finally prevail, thousands of radicals are demanding the revolution – not in faraway Libya or Syria, but right here in the centerpiece of global imperialism, in the New York City. This is the Wall Street Spring – a significant demonstration of solidarity among anti-capitalists and class struggle prisoners!

Wall Street Spring is radical in manners that have shaken the foundation of mainstream media in this country. Both liberal and conservative media have cautiously covered this uprising, essentially because unlike in the past, this gathering is truly diverse, and phenomenally radical. The revolutionaries are not endorsing any simplistic political ploy by a liberal party to garner support through expressions of politically correct rhetoric. In fact, quite the contrary. A placard prominently reads – mocking the Democrats – “Job Creators, my ass”.

In many ways, “Occupy Wall Street” is reminiscent of the several marches across the country over the past decades. People from various sections of society have gathered to march against police brutality and societal inequality. And yet in significant ways, it is rather different. The goal today is not to reconcile following legislative changes, but to revolt to ensure a peoples’ democracy. The march is not silent. The march is not harmoniously conducted hand in hand with musical backgrounds. The march today is disparate, heterogeneous, expressive of collective anger and resentment against the status quo. More of an extension of the Black Panthers taking over college campuses with loudspeakers and radical agendas; than a pacified demonstration of hopeful placards. It is not a congregation to reconstruct the capitalistic society, it is one that speaks through the voice of the latest victim Troy Davis: “Dismantle this unjust system”.

“You Must be Asleep to Experience American Dream”

Long ago, Malcolm X announced how he was experiencing American Nightmare, not American Dream. For several decades his call for the people to literally “wake up” were ridiculed, suppressed and relegated to dustbins of history by the private media enterprises. From Hollywood flicks to CNN headlines, frivolous entertainments were repackaged as news for popular consumption. Big businesses through advertisements and various forms of sponsorships pushed their agendas for a ferociously vital American economy – an economy where capital would be privately held, with solitary aim for unlimited profits, and where the capital would invariably triumph over the labor.

For decades, the American Dream – a fictitious and opportunistic claim that anyone can selfishly prosper through individual efforts – has been demonstrated as the encompassing ideology of global capitalism. The phrase has gained approvals because it has gone unquestioned. Much like the accompanying rhetoric: Democracy.

The dream and the democracy – both are at stake this time. In the past, the masses demanded to restore them. This time, they are demanding to dismantle them. No wonder, the New York Times failed to deconstruct what is happening at the Wall Street. “Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim” read the headline on the Times. For decades the mainstream corporate media defined for the people what their aims should be in order that the status quo is duly maintained. And usually in the western world, the protests have invariably taken a reformist shape, because the goals are precisely laid out, the conversations are articulately arranged, and the legislative conclusions draw the final lines.

However, this time, it is different, to say the least. It is not just the Wall Street. It is Occupation United States. Similar “occupation” movements are taking over various cities in the country, almost in a way, that it is difficult to fathom the direction they shall take. Many critics of the Occupation are arguing that this movement shall fail because it does not have specific goals. For instance, the otherwise liberal Colbert Report ridiculed the occupation as a mindless gibberish because the humorist found the lack of an articulated goal to be quite unacceptable.

Unacceptable, it sure is. Protests, demonstrations, and marches have traditionally been easy to contain because they tend to address specific issues and have extremely limited sphere of influence. They usually do not address the system as such because strictly from a pragmatic standpoint, it delays the process of redressal. And from a political standpoint, an attack on the system is a call for dismantling and possibly, overthrowing of an existing political economy – something which is outrightly rejected by not just the ruling class members of politics and businesses, but also by a great number of citizens who live in class denial.

War Has Been Brought Home

Occupation movement this time around offers no immediate solution – nor does it harbor much hopes either. If the collective demand is to have Obama administration dissociate itself and the United States from Wall Street money, the collective intelligence says it is probably not possible. Demanding a solution from the very system that needs to be dismantled is a worthless endeavor. And no one knows this better than the radicals themselves. And yet, what is much more important is the historical knowledge that revolutions take place not through pessimistic withdrawals, but through constant engagement with all available avenues of protests until the status quo is reversed.

In our fast-paced, solution-oriented, just-do-it society, it is quite predictable that many intellectuals and journalists, politicians and diplomats shall continue to question the viability of movements that offer no concrete alternatives. But a reflective and critical study of revolutionary theories and unique histories of various progressive movements shall demonstrate that all that the masses need are a few sparks, and there is no telling what turns the events will take!

Capitalistic America today appears to be insurmountable. It appears so, because it is depicted as thus through textbooks and newspapers, amidst televised programs and blockbusters. The deep vulnerabilities and classic contradictions of capitalism are deliberately omitted in an effort to celebrate the manufactured notions of freedom and democracy in the western world. But as humanity continues to evolve, and as consciousness of the masses across various oppressed social locations continues to be raised, the protocols are bound to shatter. The people will emerge as the leaders themselves. And their collective aspirations – to inhale the air that celebrates human dignity, free from greed of private accumulations – are bound to prevail. Its just a matter of time. And, that clock is ticking today at the Wall Street.

Toiling for the Commonwealth

Ankit Sharma and Paresh Chandra

In the 19th century, the one time British Prime Minister, and renowned novelist, Benjamin Disraeli, wrote a novel called Sybil: The Two Nations; this was one of the first explorations of the polarisation of wealth and power that capitalism breeds, how inside a single country, coexist the fabled halls of plenty and extreme hunger. Today, in India, one does not even need to compare the metropolis and the margin (the “Maoist afflicted territories”) to comprehend the existence of two such nations – it is to be seen in the Capital itself.

 

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In the last decade the name of Delhi has become synonymous with “development”; fancy flyovers, expressways, wide roads, metro services, etc. symbolise the form of development that Delhi aspires toward – development that will make Delhi a “world class city” of the new millennium. And all this at the cost of neglecting completely, the fulfillment even of basic necessities of life for many living in and around Delhi. At present, it would seem on glancing at mainstream newspapers, that the development of a city is to be measured in terms of the number of shopping malls it has, or the number of millionaires, or the width of roads and so on – in short, everything which relates to the richer section of society. A supplement of one India’s leading dailies declares Delhi to be the city of the 21st century, moving ahead of other Indian cities like Mumbai and Kolkata. This declaration, ostensibly, is based on the one hand upon Delhi’s new born pride, the Metro, and on the other on the city’s status as the “melting-pot” of all Indian cultures (possibly because the industrial zones rising around Delhi attract workers from all over the country). Not a paragraph to bring out the conditions under which these workers live or labour.

With majority of the population, the labouring and languishing poor altogether out of contention, India indeed seems to be shining. Even if the class that actually reaps the benefits of such development comprises 10 per cent of the nation’s population, the number is still in excess of a 100 million. It is easy to stay within this constituency, represent and celebrate its interests, and still call oneself the representative (government, or daily) of a nation. Of course, there are times when even large sections of the richer nation inside India, the so-called middle classes are affected for the worse, by policy or development plans. But such is the inertia of their past comforts, and such is the influence of the state, that they are able to while away times of duress dreaming of riches to come. All their responses are programmed by the state, in forms the state can control, and in the final instance they are comfortable even in this relative discomfort, and they do not feel pressed to speak up.

 

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Coming to the immediate, we find that all of Delhi’s resources are being invested to prepare for the staging of the Commonwealth Games; all of the city’s development plans are spread around this event. Several new roads are being built, new stadiums are coming up, a concrete “village” big enough to house the people of many slums has been constructed for the athletes.  A city facing one of the biggest water shortages in all its history is going to fill up massive swimming pools. For three years in a row college grounds have been made unavailable to students, putting an end to a lot of sports activity (evidently this is how the CWG is going to encourage sports). Thousands of students, who can barely afford the subsidised hostel rates, have been thrown out of their hostels, forced to find accommodation in expensive areas around the university. The Chief Minister has come out in the media declaring that the people of Delhi will have to pay for these Games in the form of increased taxes, rise in the prices of public transport, and so on (supposedly, all people in Delhi are rich enough to pay this tiny price for the sake of the nation’s and the city’s glory). However the main thrust of the current piece is to spare a glance at that side of Delhi which is altogether ignored by all, including the media.

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Large numbers of migrant labourers have shifted base to Delhi because of the work become available due to the large scale infrastructural development leading up to the Games. This huge influx of migrant labourers , in addition to the ones already living in slums and worker localities around the city, has led to greater competition amongst them, on which private contractors hired by the government are thriving. These private contractors are able to control wages and working conditions, obviously to the disadvantage of workers. Workers at CWG sites earn anything from Rs.200 to Rs.700 for eight hours of work in a day depending upon level of skill, much more, it can be argued than the minimum wage fixed by the government. Using this data the mainstream media is often found trying to prove that the government is generating employment for these workers as well as helping them earn a livelihood. Often, it is added, that the workers are also being provided with a place to live, in temporary settlements near construction sites. But, as is always true in such cases, a different order of truth altogether ignored by the media exists behind this façade. These workers have no job security, hired on a day, fired on the other. In fact, most of them are hired on a daily or weekly basis. If hired for longer durations they face irregularities of payment. They do not have the freedom, as a result to work elsewhere during this period, or to leave this work, for the fear of having to forfeit wages earned.  Sometimes workers are paid not according to the duration of work, but quantity of it – this much pay for this much work (for instance, this is usually the case for road construction workers). In this case the work day extends upto ten hours or more; this, one can understand, is the cost of the alacrity needed to finish the project in time for the Games.

 

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Owing to irregularities of the kind mentioned above, workers are forced to shift their families close to the work-site where their wives too enter the labour market, hoping to find greater financial security for the family. Female workers get paid amounts much lower than what men earn for the same work. Where the fixed minimum wage is Rs.203, female workers are usually paid as little as Rs.130 for eight hours of work. When the supply of workers increases this drops down to Rs100 or less.  Furthermore, mothers have no choice but to keep their children close by while they work; a more hazardous environment to bring up a child is hard to imagine, because immediate danger of hurt is compounded with assured health trouble in later life. Children already nearing adolescence actually work alongside their mothers; a little more in the family’s pocket.

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Why should all the members of a family work when one member is already earning more than the fixed minimum wages? Clearly, the life that a single man’s wage affords is not quite so good. The minimum wage allows a worker to reproduce his labour power and is by no means suitable remuneration for the work he does; to be able to do even a little more than merely exist (even if that something is as seemingly inconsequential as owning a transistor) more than a single person’s wage is needed. So the whole family sets to work, at jobs that hardly pay anything even as they break their backs. Whether they work or not is not a choice, is clear enough to see, but even choosing the work they do is not an option – do what you get.

With increased migration and the fall in wages caused by the resultant increase in competition living condition of workers have also suffered. As the wages fall well below the minimum required for their subsistence the workers are forced to live in temporary settlements near work sites, settlements hardly suited to be inhabited by human beings. The differentiation between skilled and un-skilled labourers seems to continue in these settlements, where un-skilled workers are made to stay pretty much anywhere (tents beneath flyovers, or on the roadside, or next to metro-pillars and so on). Skilled workers are at least able to afford a place in some sort of slums or worker localities, or are provided with tin shelters near construction sites. Of course this relative privilege hardly amounts to anything; 4 to 5 skilled workers stay in tin rooms hardly 6 feet across. Often these temporary tents or rooms serve as living quarters for the entire family; proximity to the worksite definitely adds to health problems that workers and their families face.

 

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There is no direct supply of water to these localities, forcing the workers to use water stored in unclean cans which used for construction purposes; the problem is even greater for the quarters which are not that close to any big site, as they are forced to buy water form tankers. Furthermore, these settlements are not legal and once the work is complete the workers are forced to evacuate.

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Workers cannot afford to waste any part of their wages on daily commuting; another reason that forces them to leave close to worksites is their shift timings (for instance the workers constructing roads stay in tents near the site because they are required to work all through the night stopping in the early hours of the morning). These conditions negate the possibility of any “family life,” a middle-class term altogether alien to the lives of these workers. Even if the family stays together, everybody works: the man, the woman, and the children, giving them no chance to spend any time together, let alone “quality time.” A set of people involved in the construction of the structures that will allow India to “proclaim itself on the world-stage” as a rising “super-power” and a “quasi-developed-country” are reduced to a status little higher than the tools they use.

Photos by Ankit Sharma