In the aftermath of the widespread outpouring of public support for the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, President Barack Obama and the Democrats have decided to reinvent themselves as fighters against social inequality and for the “middle class.”
After Obama’s 2012 State of the Union Address, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a front-page story on January 26 titled, “Obama’s speech echoes Occupy movement themes.” Chronicle staffwriter Joe Garofoli described the speech in the following terms:
“President Obama’s State of the Union speech was widely described as populist for its focus on economic fairness and demand that the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share of taxes.
“Linking the dominant themes in Obama’s nationally televised address Tuesday to the mantras of the Occupy Wall Street movement would have been unthinkable five months ago. But in having its message echoed in the State of the Union address, the Occupy movement reached a milestone in changing the national conversation.”
The Chronicle story’s conclusion was clear: the Occupy movement had helped the Democrats recast themselves as friends of the people by embracing the Occupy themes.
Inherent Flaw and Vulnerability
If Obama was able to get away with this presidential facelift, it was largely because the OWS movement, from the outset, was explicit about not wanting to take on the Obama administration or place concrete demands on the government.
OWS organizers in New York City’s Zuccoti Park asserted that taking such a stance would only divide and split the movement. Their overall political approach – borrowed largely from the Movement of the Outraged (or “Indignados”) in Spain – was to focus their ire on the banks and the 1 percent.
It was because of this inherent fundamental political flaw that few voices in the Occupy movement ever spoke out to expose the Obama administration and the Democrats for enabling the Wall Street banksters who sold us out. But Wall Street didn’t do the job on its own; it took the politicians in the twin parties of capitalism, led by Obama, to turn over our money– and mortgage our future — to these speculators and swindlers.
Equally few were the voices within Occupy who denounced Obama for seeking to co-opt their message. Many of Occupy activists quoted in the mainstream press, in fact, have said they are pleased that Obama and the Democrats are finally heeding their message.
Many say they hope this will result in policy changes by our “friends in government.” A very common view among labor officials and activists is that Occupy has finally pushed Obama to the left — which, of course, is hogwash. [See articles about Obama’s record and the 2012 presidential election in this issue.]
Framing the political adversary as the 1 percent has also made the OWS movement more vulnerable to the Democrats. The theoreticians of Occupy — taking their lead from the theoreticians of the new Populist movements en vogue in Europe – openly reject the category of social classes, targeting instead a financial “plutocracy.”
This has enabled the architects of co-optation, including the trade union officialdom, to explain that the Republicans are the ones representing the 1 percent, while the Democrats, by and large, are with the 99 percent. The March 12 AFL-CIO press release endorsing Obama states, for example:
“Each of the Republican presidential candidates [in contrast to Obama and the Democrats] has pledged to uphold the special privileges of Wall Street and the 1 percent — privileges that have produced historic economic inequality and drowned out the voices of working people in America.”
“Phase Two” of Occupy Wall Street
From the very beginning of this movement, political forces linked to the ruling class — the “1 percent” — have sought to manipulate and derail the struggle of working people and the oppressed that flocked to Occupy to advance their own class interests.
And the effort to co-opt will only intensify in the weeks and months to come.
On January 18, 2012, we learned in the Black Agenda Report that “Phase Two” of Occupy Wall Street — following the Phase One of the encampments — is underway. It is called “Occupy The Dream,” and it is being led by Rebuild the Dream convener Van Jones. Its goal is to field 2,000 Democratic Party candidates in 2012 under the 99 percent banner.
Occupy The Dream co-founder Ben Chavis did not mince words, telling a crowd of Occupy Wall Street in New York on Martin Luther King Day that, “November 6 [election day] is going to be a day of destiny, when Occupy is going to get up from the tent and go into the polling stations.”
But New York City is not the only place this co-optation is taking place.
In Chicago, Occupy The Dream and Occupy Chicago staged a King Day rally featuring top city Democrats on the dais, including Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle and congresspersons Jan Schakowsky and Jesse Jackson, Jr.
In Washington, D.C., the Rev. Jamal Bryant, also a leader of Occupy The Dream, told a King Day rally in front of the Federal Reserve — one of 16 rallies organized nationwide on this day by Occupy The Dream — that Wall Street and the Federal Reserve must be accountable to the people. “We don’t want politicians to be puppets. We don’t want them working for the biggest donor,” said Bryant.
Glen Ford, editor of the Black Agenda Report, is one of the few people in the Occupy movement who has exposed this stepped-up drive to take Occupy hook, line and sinker into the Democratic Party. He writes:
“It is meaningless to proclaim that the people don’t need politicians that are ‘puppets’ of big donors, without pointing out that Barack Obama has raised more money from Wall Street than all the Republicans, combined; raised more money, in fact, from Bain Capital employees than Bain co-founder Mitt Romney; just as he raised far more cash on Wall Street than John McCain in 2008. … Most Black people don’t know any of this — and, in fact, assume that Wall Street favors Republicans.
“The Fed does not act in isolation. Although technically not even part of the government, the Fed in practice works hand in glove with the executive branch to coordinate economic policy. … The Fed acts as an arm of the president in power. The relationship is even more intimate: Obama Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank.
“For these reasons, the administration should be ‘held accountable’ for the $16 trillion (or more) the Federal Reserve funneled to Wall Street under President Obama’s watch. But you didn’t hear that from Rev. Bryant — or, probably, from any of the Reverends in the 16 cities that Occupy The Dream targeted for Federal Reserve demonstrations.
”To treat the Federal Reserve as a kind of force unto itself, to pretend that it does not act in tandem with the administration, amounts to an absolution of Obama for the Fed’s crimes against the people – whether Rev. Bryant and Dr. Ben Chavis intended to, or not.”
Corporate Funding for OWS
To accomplish their goal of co-optation, a wing of the capitalist class has understood that the Occupy movement could use more funding.
On February 28, 2012, the Wall Street Journal reported an effort under way to “institutionalize” Occupy Wall Street; this time with lots of money and an office in New York City. The WSJ article states, in part:
“A group of business leaders are planning to pour substantial funds — their aim is to raise $1.8 million — into the Occupy Wall Street movement in hopes of sustaining the protests and fostering political change.
“Their goal is to provide some ballast to an amorphous movement that captured the world’s attention with nonstop, overnight protests in dozens of cities but has had trouble regaining momentum since most of those encampments were broken up by police in the past few months.”
The WSJ article quotes a business leader whose non-profit institute is mandated to promote “free markets” and who states that now is the time to help OWS “define its message” given that “the Occupy movement has not put forward a specific agenda.”
Students, activists, unionists and community organizers did not turn to the Occupy movement to be taken back into the dead end of ruling class politics. More than ever, it is necessary to deepen and expand the independent struggles of working people and all the oppressed around their own pressing demands. — A.B.