Monday, October 17, 2011

Occupy Wall Street and propaganda

The Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS)  has so far had a pretty good shelf life. The reason is clear: it represents a huge base of legitimate resentment. In spite of all the public relations resources that large banks, insurance companies and investment houses can command, the basic fact is that the vast majority of the population (here and abroad)  knows that the terrible world-wide near-depression which started around 2008 was the result of greed and carelessness centered around Wall Street. This culpability has been documented over and over by books (e.g. The Big Short by "Moneyball" auther Michael Lewis), movies (e.g. the Academy-Award-winning documentary Inside Job), and articles (almost all reporting outside Rupert Murdoch's  Wall Street Journal).

It was probably a good idea for OWS to have a vague and diverse message in these early days. People should be allowed to come up with their own reasons for resenting Wall Street, and think about them and what they would like to see in the way of control and restitution. In this way a large mass movement can be gotten together -- at least initially.

The problem is that the forces representing Wall Street and its interests are extremely powerful, with immense resources. Wall Street was, for decades, a financial prop for the right wing in general, and conservative interests in general. However, when the narrowness, self-interest, and actual harm of its policies, as embodied by the adminstration of G.W. Bush, became obvious to nearly everyone, they were smart enough to desert the sinking ship, and shift their support to the Democrats and the election of Barack Obama in 2008. When they were rewarded with key sympathizers Paulson, Summers and Geitner achieving strong infuence in the new administration, they went back to work undermining reform by backing attacks on Obama, healthcare, and consumer/environmental protection. The massive funding of the "make Obama fail" movement by the Koch brothers (among many other wealthy right-wing sources of money, and the entire Republican Party) is now everywhere.

And, right on schedule, the attacks on OWS are being stepped up. Photos and accounts of sex, drugs and rock and roll are being trotted out, along with images of inane signs and videos of incidents of various kinds of idiocy.

This is the way it always works. When I took part in the early anti-war demonstrations in the Boston area, I'd be surrounded by pretty serious marchers, including grand-parent types, men and women with babies on shoulders or in strollers, and people and puppets decked out as Nixon and Kissinger. There was also a small contingent of marchers who had beards and long hair -- stjill pretty scary, I guess, even for the middle 60's in America. As we trudged along, the mid-day population of the bars emptied out, with red-eyed folks, heaping all sorts of nasty insults on the streams of passers by. The next day the Boston Globe featured articles describing hundreds of "hippies", probably on drugs, screaming obscenities -- accounts totally at odds with reality, but presented credulously  by the Globe reporters.

The interests that want to destroy any kind of people's movement love to use divisiveness to break its back. When OWS points out that 1% of the population controls 40% of its wealth, its enemies respond by claiming 53% pay taxes and 47% don't. The idiocy of this supposedly countering pseudo statistic (which neglects FICA, and ignores the many who are too poor to pay income taxes) doesn't prevent it from being dutifully and uncritically reported by the news media.

The time is rapidly approaching when OWS must present some sort of unifying position on economic issues, and must have spokespeople to enunciate carefully and reasonably this position. There are many items its members can mostly agree on, though there are probably none on which all will agree. But that's OK: only someone who doesn't understand democracy will insist that nothing can be advocated unless everyone agrees to it; such a position is worse than a filibuster, after all.

Here are some examples of very popular ideas.

1. Ending the economic favoritism that enables banks to borrow at near zero interest rates and use this money to invest in Treasury Bills.

2. Forcing banks to renegotiate "underwater" mortgages (mortgages on houses worth less than than the money owed).

3. Enacting laws forcing banks that were bailed out to actually lend money.

4. Passing a Financial Services Tax (what I call the Parasite Tax) that would put a small tax on both sides of every stock transaction. This is purely a tax on speculators, not wealth or job creators.

5. Taxing capital gains as ordinary or "earned" income.

6. Strengthening not weakening the Dodd-Frank financial regulation act.

7. Investigating seriously the roles of financial executives in the subprime mortgage debacle.

8. Extension of unemployment benefits for  "long" periods  (at least a year at a time).

It is hard to believe that at least these items would not be agreed upon by 90% of the OWS supporters. There is no need to make further general statements about the nature of capitalism or other divisive issues.

If you have further suggestions please use the comments section to list them.


  1. How about a constitutional amendment that congress cannot pass a law that benefits the lawmakers but not the citizen or that penalizes the citizen while the lawmakers are exempt?

    Also, remove the cap on earnings subject to Social Security.

    And -- put everyone on Medicare. Charge accordingly, but eliminate the private insurance companies and allow government to negotiate hospital charges and pharmaceutical costs for its citizens.


  2. Interesting post. I see the value of OWS having some unifying economic issues to rally around. But I also see pitfalls in that approach related to disputes over what proposals to pursue and the details of those proposals sapping the energy and passion involved in OWS.

    I'd recommend a single unifying theme - getting money out of politics. The anger that is motivating much of OWS is that our political and economic systems no longer benefit the American people because they have been captured by a narrow economic elite. The solution is to get money out of the system so that our politicians are once again responsive to we the people.

    I've written a bit more on this topic here -

    I'd be interested to hear what you think.