14 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street—a Sixties moment?

Is Occupy Wall Street a Sixties' moment? Will it bring about lasting change or simply fade away? Either way, it is overdue. Started in New York, inspired by the Arab Spring, it has now spread throughout the U.S. and beyond. The views of the participants are diverse, yet seem to focus on two demands: We want our democracy back and we want a more equitable, sustainable society. The demands are reasonable and timely.

The United States more than other Western nation has seen its democracy reduced to a shadow. The Obama administration offers a variety of examples. Its centerpiece of domestic legislation, the health care program, seemed designed as much to placate the insurance and pharmaceutical industries as serve the American people. And when he dealt with the financial crisis, he focused on bailing out the banks rather than their victims and even hired some of the scoundrels who contributed to the problem. But rather than blame Obama, we might ask if he had a choice. Given the lobbying and publicity power of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, he probably couldn't have passed his legislation without their concurrence. As for the financial industry, it was a major contributor to his 2008 election campaign, and he will need that support again if he hopes to win in 2012. Corporate largesse is now essential to winning elections in the U.S.

And while democracy is steadily eroded by plutocratic power, wealth drifts increasingly into the hands of those who already have the most. The United States now has its most inequitable distribution of wealth since at least the end of the Second World War and the most inequitable in the Western World. Nor is its wealth production sustainable, dependent as it is on diminishing resources and pollution of the environment.

In a properly functioning democracy, these fundamental issues would be debated through the conventional party process, but that is hard to do in the kind of dysfunctional democratic/plutocratic system that exists in the U.S. Both major parties are beholden to corporate power which wants neither issue debated seriously. Former President Dwight Eisenhower, who famously warned against the military-industrial complex would be astonished to see his country now run by a military-industrial-Congressional complex. Nor is the mass media, the political forums of modern democracy, much help in holding such debates when they are owned and controlled by corporations.

The dissenters are therefore, like those in the Sixties, left to rely on less orthodox methods than party politics or the mass media to get their message heard, such as the tried and true approach of taking to the streets.

And the movement is growing. Demonstrations have spread from New York to almost every other major city in the U.S., including Chicago, Boston, St. Louis and Los Angeles. Unions representing transit workers, airline pilots, teachers, doormen, security guards, maintenance workers, postal workers, healthcare workers, and other labour sectors have pledged support. Actors, filmmakers, musicians, academics, and other celebrities have also shown support, as have some Congressmen.

Canadians, too, are getting in on the act, with protests planned for cities across the country, including Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Calgary. We Canadians have been fortunate in not having our democracy eroded to the same degree as the Americans, nor have we suffered the same disparity of incomes. Just as we refused to surrender our financial system to the vagaries of unregulated free markets as they did, we have maintained a more democratic and equitable society generally, but the same destructive forces of global capitalism are pressing in on us, too, so adding our voices to the movement is an exercise in both solidarity and prudence.

The movement may, like those in the Sixties, produce lasting effects, or it may just fade away, but it's a righteous cause—or causes, rather—a refreshing rejection of the status quo.

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