Thursday, December 08, 2011

What is Occupy Wall Street?

I've been trying to wrap my head around what's going on in the Occupy Wall Street movement. It's gotten a lot of attention from the press, yet there seems to be very little understanding about what is really going on. Some of the bloggers I read have published stories about crime in the Occupy movement, stories that have seem limited airtime on national news. But my goal has been to avidly read every story I could find, to determine what it's all about. These people are exerting a lot of time and in some cases money, I'd like to find out why. In this post, I'll try to explain what I've learned. In a later post, I'll give my thoughts and opinion on that information.

Two of the best stories I've read come from Bloomberg Businessweek, both available online here and here. While there are more stories out there, these stories do a better job of explaining the movement than most. I encourage reading them. I also plan on reading a book described in the article titled "Debt: The First 5,000 years" by David Graeber, the so-called "Man behind the mask."

The article says that Graeber "as been an anarchist since the age of 16." What's unique is that Graeber would not mind being an anarchist. He admits that "most people don’t think anarchism is (just) a bad idea. They think it’s insane." But unlike most people, "Graeber’s father, (has) seen it work."

The Occupy movement is made of a lot of other individuals, each with their own view of what is going on. As a group, they are still trying to define what all of this means. But there are groups within the movement that have similarities and they attract people sympathetic to their views (I doubt we see many Reagan conservatives at these rallies). They are against money in politics and the crushing effect of "debt: mortgages, credit-card debt, student loans, and the difference in how the debts of large financial companies and those of individual borrowers" get settled.

If there is one defining trait of the Occupiers - it's that. It's the "where's MY bailout" story. Where's the bailout for the middle-aged man, who took out first and second mortgages, credit cards and bought the American Dream on payments, then lost his job in the 2008 fiasco and saw his interest rates skyrocket, while the Bank paid executives huge salaries? Where's the bailout for the college graduate who took out student loans, now can't find a job to pay them back?

The timing of the movement, amidst this overwhelming debt by individuals, bail-outs and unemployment has been the triggering action to bring these people together. Top that off with a conservative movement that wants to cut all forms of aid because they think it's the only way to recover and they hate big government and the movement ignites. The Occupiers "oppose cutbacks and austerity of any kind." (Wikipedia defines austerity as budget cutting, lower spending, reduction of benefits). This comes from the anarchy that Graeber's father saw in Spain after the IMF mandated spending cuts, austerity that is now being imposed on Greece, other nations and even individuals in the US.

What bothers me the most about watching the movement from the sidelines is the similarities between this movement and some movements I've watched from afar in Egypt, Libya and France. Movements in those countries started not as political movements, but as movements by unemployed. When large numbers of people become unemployed and can't find work to pay for basic necessities, they look for answers and frequently rise up against the government. Instead of answers, they see the government keeping them down. I've read other articles that compared debt to slavery, this idea feeds the movement as well.

At the end of the article, reference is made to a policy recommendation in Graeber's book calling for "jubilee" - a forgiveness of all international and consumer debt. I understand the term and have even written about it (although I referred to a city of refuge). I thought it was uniquely Judeo-Christian in concept, but the article says that jubilees occurred "in ancient Babylon, Assyria, and Egypt." The article goes on to say that the "alternative, ... was rioting and chaos in years when poor crop yields left lots of peasants in debt."

Is that where we're headed? Rioting and chaos (which we've already seen)? Is anarchy, or small democracy the answer? Must banks be run as non-profit organizations? Should all debt be wiped clean every seven years? I'm not sure I have the answers, but I'll give my opinion in my next post.

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