The left died, and remains dead. That’s been a mantra among some leftwingers, all system politicians and respectable pundits for the last 30-years. Americans chant this whenever the left appears in public.
It was the Reagan Revolution which annihilated the American left. He defeated PATCO and buried the New Deal Coalition. He stood tall for America. He was America. More importantly, Reagan and Thatcher proved to anyone willing to see clearly and with their own eyes that there is no alternative to capitalism as we know it. The subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union, along with François Mitterrand’s tournant de la rigueur and the eventual political ‘failure’ of the Sandinista Revolution, only affirmed the obvious: Collectivism is always a mistake. “Society does not exist.” Markets are rational. Consequently, resistance was/is futile, and resistance only made/makes the resister look irrational, inane, laughable — a “loser,” to use common talk.
To be sure, the death of the left did not imply that leftwingers in the United States had ceased to exist. They lived, wrote, criticized, marched, organized, etc. Anyone could find them if they cared to, especially if they looked for the left in America’s major cities and college towns. Nevertheless, Americans in general ignored the left even when they knew leftists existed: Leftists, it was commonly believed, wasted their time, whereas their ideology was dangerous and akin to the ranting of a Harold Camping, Louis Farrakhan, L. Ron Hubbard or a flat earther. Leftists could be found only on the margins of America’s civilization. They belonged there. They were different. And why not keep them at arm’s length? After all, America had triumphed over its adversaries. Individualism triumphed with it. Events in the late 20th century confirmed F.A. Hayek’s famous diagnosis (1994). Americans knew they lived in the best of all possible worlds. They lacked any reason to protest this world, this America.
When one first considers the Occupy Wall Street or 99% movement, it seems that the movement changed all of that. After all, longstanding leftwing concerns about class conflict, political power and economic justice have recently impinged upon America’s public space, its political culture, its consciousness. The OWS/99% movement promoted these causes. It made them public issues. Before late September, which the movement first appeared, American domestic politics focused on budget deficits, tax cuts and entitlement ‘reform’. Americans had to live a more rigorous life because economic conditions demanded this of them. Austerity talk remains in play, of course. But movement talk of justice now threatens to push it aside. The establishment media increasingly attends to a fraction of the left, namely, to that part of the left willing to encamp outdoors and directly contend with the security-surveillance apparatus. The marginal have come to occupy center stage, at least some of the time. The movement has thus captured the attention of the nation in just one month. This is plain as day. And it is good news.
Yet, to my mind, a question remains: Did the OWS/99% movement actually accomplish this?
The answer to the question is ambiguous because it refers to an ambiguous political situation. The OWS/99% movement is undeniably significant. Yet, something besides the motives, thinking or tactics of capitalism’s left critics recently changed. The left, such as it may be, remains much as it had been. The Occupy Wall Street movement did not overcome obstacles others failed to surpass. OWS walks a known path. Rather, what did change — and decisively so — is the audience the left always tries to address, namely, the 99% to which the Occupy Wall Street slogan refers. The 99% slogan points to common Americans, to everyone who is not an owner or elite manager of capital, especially finance capital. It is the many — the demos — that has changed. To grasp one effect of this, consider the following passage taken from a Tom Engelhardt piece:
Here are a few observations from recent trips to Zuccotti Park and various marches I’ve been on, including last Saturday when the Occupy movement went global with, the Washington Post reports, rallies in “more than 900” cities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States. Having been at many demonstrations in my life, here’s the strangest and perhaps the most striking thing I’ve noticed: I have yet to see a single counterdemonstration, or even a single counterdemonstrator. Not one. Nor a single sign expressing disapproval, outrage, or upset with the Occupy Wall Street movement. This, believe me, is not normal for protests. Talk about expressing the will of the 99%!
And the earliest public opinion polls reflect this. According to an Ipsos poll, a startling 82% of Americans have heard of the movement, striking percentages are following it with some attention, and — according to TIME magazine — 54% of Americans have a favorable view of it, only 23% an unfavorable one. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising in a country in which 86% of those polled believe “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington,” or in which median household income fell by 6.7% after the Great Recession of 2008 was officially declared over (9.8% since it began).
America once had a political culture captivated by hype promoting the belief that America was the exception among nations. “[W]e are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us,” as Madeleine Albright once stated. Americans ‘knew’ that America is the richest, greatest most powerful country in the world. They knew these beliefs to be true because they were part of America’s common sense, its civic religion, its collective identity. Affirming America’s self-conceit was a conspicuous feature of the Reagan Revolution. Indeed, the Reagan Revolution might have been labeled the “Reagan Renewal.” Reagan, it was thought, restored America’s belief in itself, in its destiny. America became America once again (yet, see this!) during the Reagan administration. Achieving this affirmation of an atavistic American nationalism was Reagan’s greatest political victory. And he had the scalps that seemingly paid for his claims about his America.
Today, however, a belief in American exceptionalism is faltering, slowly but surely. The audience receptive to a crude but seductive Americanism shrinks accordingly. In other words, Americans are learning the truth about the Reagan Revolution. They are learning that it was anything but “Morning in America” in 1984. They are learning that they were conned, that decades of Reaganism in practice has undermined their security and the future their children must face. They are grasping these truths because the American economy now threatens their way of life.
I do not believe this demystification to be a collective harm. In fact, I believe it is the demise of this political myth that is now creating the political space in which the OWS/99% movement can publicly make its case. It is due to this case-making movement work that a new political situation in the United States is coming into being. The Occupy Wall Street/99% movement has merely called attention to some of the destructive effects caused by Reaganism in practice. Its very presence in the streets of America’s cities calls for government actions meant to make things right now and in the future for most Americans. Nevertheless, everything today greatly depends on the willingness of the 99% — Alan Simpson’s “lesser people” — to listen to and even to join the protesters. It is their receptive ears and eyes which make the OWS/99% movement powerful. The attention and beliefs of the many, of the demos, pulls the movement into America’s public sphere, a system managed by the elite in order to keep just this kind of critique off-air, so to speak. The demos provides the horizon from which the movement may form a new public space, new political entities and from which it may even force needed reforms onto the elite. It is the demos that can lay just claim to speaking in the name of “We the People.”
We the People. It was and remains an essential and productive idea. From it we may derive a defense of a radical democracy. It is just this possibility — radical democratic action — which frightens Wall Street and the political elite.
So, is it reasonable to expect common Americans will listen to and even join the protesters? I believe it is. One can reasonably expect the 99% to listen, learn and even act as long as the 1% runs roughshod over them. The Economic Crisis of 2008 and the elite response to that crisis got the attention of most Americans. We can expect common Americans to rise to the occasion when they are forced to endure defeat after defeat in American’s class struggle. The future that awaits them is clear enough. When put into different terms, the point I want to make is that an inescapable but unnecessary poverty is an effective teacher of rude truths and a compelling motivator of political action!
Simpson’s “lesser people” are now pushing back, and they are learning why they need to do so and how to actually do it. They are acquiring the democratic spirit, one that has been nurtured by the class aggression conducted under the auspices of the Reagan Revolution.