On “Occupy Wall Street”and Its implications
By He Qinglian
Translated from: http://biweekly.hrichina.org/article/1238
Before Oct 15, the world thought “Occupy Wall Street” was the problem of the United States alone. Beijing in particular saw it as the American people's opposition to American capitalism, and said explicitly, merrily that this time round it got even with U.S. media which had been reporting for years "negative news" of China. It was after the day the Occupy movement was held in seventy-one countries across the world that people began to realize things are not so simple. The theme of the Occupy movement is to oppose such economic and social problems as unfair financial order, and the wealth gap. Many protesters also called on their government to cut expenditure. To be fair, no country in the world is not troubled by these problems. It's only that the institutional causes of such problems and the measures governments have taken to deal with them varies significantly.
The embarrassment of U.S. President Obama
Let's start with the United States. China said this movement means American capitalism is in trouble. It was wrong. The current proposition the Occupy activists held is to oppose the “1% fat cats” of the Wall Street, they do not target American capitalism. It would be more accurate to see the protesters who find the financial order imbalanced as an embarrassment to the Obama administration. Because for a long time, it is the Democratic government that has been taking too much care of the low-income and sowed the seeds of imbalance in financial order.
Those who are familiar with the U.S. political spectrum would realize that when it comes to economic issues, the Rightists are good at making money (creation of wealth) while the Leftists are good at handing it out (distribution of wealth). After the outbreak of the subprime mortgage crisis, some in the American public blamed it on the Bush administration, yet the experts knew all too well that the root cause of the crisis was laid not by the Bush administration, but by the preceding Democratic government. At those years, it was the Democratic government and their Congress representatives who, out of the idea “protection of the disadvantaged”, advocated the lending restrictions on the poor be relaxed.
A product of this idea, the Community Reinvestment Act approved by the Carter administration in 1977 and repeatedly modified by the Clinton administration in the 1990s stipulated that credit corporations like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac lower the loan threshold for the low- and medium-income households; it even prescribed the amount of loans to the low-income. In 2005, the Republican majority in Congress motioned to modify the lending criteria of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it met with unanimous opposition from the Democrats. And the first domino that fell in the financial crisis were Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, both suffered massive losses.
In U.S. political spectrum, Barack Obama is without question a Leftist. He himself has been called as “the Black Marx” because of the political belief and gestures in his earlier years. After he assumed the presidency, Barack Obama has been striving to realize his political belief, doing all he could to implement policies that benefit the poor and the disadvantaged: he expanded credit and made much effort to rescue giants of the financial as well as the automotive industries. Most of these policies—from raising the welfare of the low-income to providing job opportunities for the workers—were formulated with the low-income in mind. These people and various disadvantaged groups are chiefly what Barack Obama's supporters composed of.
This time, the "Occupy" activists opposed the financial sector that at one point benefited them have presented President Barack Obama with a dilemma: as a President, he could not possibly agree with the proposition of these people, who all are all his supporters; but if he explicitly rejects their proposition, he may lose their votes in next year's presidential election.
Where is the bottom line for the “free lunch” the disadvantaged enjoy?
Inside American universities, the faculties of Social Science and Humanities in particular, the Leftists are always the majority, which makes their influence on the students inevitable. But the Leftists in the United States are after all much better than their counterparts in Europe. Many of the youngsters here change after they started working, they would slowly turn from thinking about the ways to distribute wealth [between different classes] to considering the methods of creating it [for the entire society]. In my view, this change is perfectly normal. At the beginning of the 20th century when the world was caught with the Communism pandemic, French Georges Clemenceau had said, “Not to be a Socialist at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head” This was his personal experience, one that I believe most people from my generation shared.
While there are the disadvantaged all over the world, the institutional reasons behind their existence vary from one country to another. Unlike the underprivileged in China, the disadvantaged in the United States have not been denied the opportunity to stand fairly with others at the same starting point: they can receive education like everyone else. The United States is a country that promotes individual freedom and guarantees equal opportunities. Plant a sapping and one would get a big tree in time. This is true not just for the native Americans, but for those immigrants as well—so long as they are diligent, clever, and willing to learn, they could get a better life through hard work. George Soros and Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, are both immigrants from Socialist countries when they were adolescents.
For this reason, the moral support “Occupy Wall Street” has gained here in the United States is far lower than the protesters have hoped for. [In an act to show their disapproval of this movement,] some conservatives created a website, “We Are The 53%”, indicating that all across the United States only 53% of the people pay taxes, while many of the protesters are only among those 46% who don't need to pay taxes.
And just like “We Are the 99 Percent”, the website created by the Occupy activists, “We Are The 53%” contains nothing but photos of sympathizers holding up high signs and slogans of support. To the left of the website there are these words: “Those of us who pay for those of you who whine about all of that... or that... or whatever.”
An article entitled “New battle cry: We're 53 percent” reported this movement in details. I visited that website and found many posts suggesting that individuals should take responsibility for themselves. Whether they make it or not is their own matters, they should not blame it on others. This is the true essence of the “American dream”.
One of the supporters recounted his own story: he's forty-three this year, has been working hard all along. In the past few years he experienced unemployment and loss of home, but he got back on his feet again soon after he got a new job, “I am the 53%!”
[Apart from this website,] many in the politics are criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg for one criticized the protesters for barking up the wrong tree: Wall Street is the employment machine and the economic engine for New York and even the whole of the United States; he also said the protesters have chosen the wrong location: the financial industry is not just on Wall Street alone; and they have used the wrong method, one that would only result in loss of confidence in the market, a worsened economy and a higher unemployment rate.
Chen Zhiwu, professor of finance at Yale University, said simply that the protesters would “eventually be shooting themselves in the foot”.
It should be said that in the capitalist world, the United States retains more then other countries concepts of free competition, which is the reason “Occupy Wall Street” cannot gain momentum in the United States.
Žižek's problem: trying to lead the way but with no direction
This movement's turning into global protests leaves us with a big question: which direction should the world develop into from now on? The speech by Slavoj Žižek, the leading figure of Post-Marxist thought, precisely showed the difficulty facing this movement.
At this stage, the world can be divided into three categories: mature capitalist countries (of which European countries are very dissimilar to the United States); despotic regimes formed by autocratic countries; and countries that have formal democracy but are plagued with troubles (including SE Asian, Latin American, and Arab countries that are moving toward democracy). Countries of the second category are at present yearning for capitalist civilizations of Europe and the United States, while those of the third category may need to undergo different levels of secondary democratization.
The school of Post-Marxist thought to which Slavoj Žižek belongs is not happy with all three categories of countries. This school inherits mainly the New Leftists' ideological legacy: critique of capitalism. Žižek is a person who is highly passionate about social movement, a participant rarely seen among intellectuals. His ways of getting involved are not just constantly making criticism of social phenomena, but also taking part in actual political movements. In his speech this time, Žižek made his argument on two fronts: he criticized capitalism of the United States and also China, with the belief that China's communists have become the most unscrupulous of capitalists. Whether or not this way of thinking—blaming all forms of wickedness on capitalism—is appropriate should be discussed in a separate article written specifically for this purpose. This article only introduces briefly the hardship he's facing in his recent speech delivered in person at the site of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.
Žižek's speech was as fanciful and irrelevant as usual. For example, he criticized the organic food for destroying the ecology and he praised the family concept. What he said that was related to the movement was his approval of the movement's ongoing revelation of all forms of lies underneath the American capitalist society. He urged the protesters not to stop fighting; he urged them to embrace the “Tea Party”, and do not see them as the enemies; and he warned that protesters should be wary of this festival-like atmosphere, do not feel good about it, or the movement may be turned into a simple carnival.
“What is truly meaningful is the change after the movement.”
He said the reason this movement, though spreading far and wide rapidly, seems stuck in its infancy and could not gain momentum is that “people so often long for something which they don't truly want. What you long for, don't be afraid, fight for it bravely.”
The only thing that people could clearly grasp was Žižek's assertion: “The marriage between democracy and capitalism has ended. Change is possible.”
European Leftists like Žižek have never truly discard the idea of communism. After Socialist countries in the USSR and SE Asia made communism a notorious term, they have had to cut a new path and develop the school of Post-Marxist thought. Listen to Žižek's speech and one would get the impression that capitalism is very bad and need to be changed. And the direction? No idea.
And to put it bluntly, what the European Leftist intellectuals enjoy the most is the parliamentary politics cum high welfare, a variation passed on in Europe from First International and Social Democratic Party (i.e. what Marx saw as Revisionism).
This system of high welfare had at one point allowed Europeans to lead life that was comfortable and easy, but the high tax rate and staggering government expenditure resulted from this is now tormenting Europe to exhaustion. If any political parties or politicians attempt to cut welfare, they would become enemies of the public and lose their votes. This is the reality that European left-wing intellectuals could not face, and as a result, they devise new theories and point their fingers at American capitalism and Chinese socialism. The concept Žižek stated clearly in this speech was: the enemy is American capitalism, and he welcomes all swords and spears that are thrown at it.
And what the activists of “Occupy Wall Street” movement essentially hope for is the size of their “free lunch” to continue to become bigger, a demand that they cannot put forward, or the 53% taxpayers would be up against it. And moreover, as much as President Barack Obama wants to serve them, he doesn’t have the capability to do so. The global “Occupy movement” that derives from this contains in it the million-dollar question: where should this world be heading to? To put together the pluses of various systems and do away with their minuses is, it seems, beyond the ability humankind now possesses.
. Translator note: The bankruptcy of both Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac was not the result of what the Democrats advocated. Instead, the Republicans, who implemented deregulation policy, were to blame for that. (Added on July 14, 2012)