Saturday, October 22, 2011

Where to now for Occupy Melbourne?

“First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win” - Gandhi

On September 17, about 1000 New Yorkers converged on Wall Street to protest the outrageous crimes perpetrated by financiers and their manifold consequences. NYPD responded brutally, macing unarmed and peaceful protesters, violently arresting hundreds, and - much to their chagrin - lending a lot of legitimacy to the cause. Since then it has spread like wildfire; other major cities in the US, across Europe, and now to Australia.

For the past week protesters have been camped at City Square in Melbourne, but the other day Lord Mayor Robert Doyle decided that these people had no right to continue protesting on public land, and evicted them. Yesterday morning, when the deadline came, the protesters exercised their right to protest peacefully, and stayed - so Doyle sent in the Riot Squad.

Unarmed, non-violent protesters were maced and forcefully dragged from their position; taken away from the park, they (and the great many Melburnians who showed up in support for the core group) then caused traffic mayhem as they blocked off key routes through the city. Now, there has been a lot said for and against Occupy Melbourne - but whether you agree or disagree with the protesters, seeing Victoria Police quelling legitimate, peaceful protests with such violence is an appalling thing for anyone who values democracy.

One of the major criticisms I’ve seen around Twitter and Facebook is that the Occupy Wall Street movement as a whole, and especially its Australian incarnations, are complaining about nothing - they have no real demands, they’re just angry and protesting for the hell of it. I can understand why this impression exists, and I want to explore that - but first, you need the back story. You probably know snippets (and the whole thing would be long and boring) so I’ll keep it to the bare essentials.

If you haven’t already read Matt Taibbi’s brilliant piece "The Great American Bubble Machine" I strongly recommend you do so, but here are the cliff’s notes: Wall Street, and especially Goldman Sach’s, has much more control than most people think. Wall Street itself, the SEC and the legislators of financial regulations are all taken from the same pool, and - effectively - are the same people working for the same goal: money for themselves and their allies.

They effectively write their own rules; even when the rules are broken, the culprits are rarely pursued; and even if they were convicted, their punishments are insignificant. With this power, these investors are able to manipulate the market at will - financial stock no longer really represents what the market wants, but increasingly what a handful of investors find temporarily useful. When they’re done with it, they dump it - taking their profits and leaving the little people to deal with the consequences.

This all happens partly because of and to benefit those who aren’t in the top 1% (who own 35% of the nation’s wealth) but who are in the next 19% (who own 50% of the nation’s wealth) - the extreme upper-middle class, those who earn immensely more money than the remaining 80% (who collectively own just 15% of the nation’s wealth) but who aren’t necessarily actively involved in manipulating the market. They do this through rhetoric. I’m sure you’re familiar with it: the free market is the best way to run an economy. Too much regulation stifles business and makes it hard for businesses to employ people. If we lessen the tax burden on the rich, that money will trickle down to the lower rungs in the form of jobs and spending - the rich will stimulate the economy by effectively utilising that money.

So, basically, what is and has always been a strategy that helps the rich is framed as a help to the poor and the middle-class. “It’s not for us - it benefits you, you won’t have jobs if the mean old government regulates us out of existence!” And, sadly, a lot in the lower rungs believe this rhetoric and will vote for it - hence the Tea Party.

To anyone with their eyes open, though, the Global Financial Crisis proved once and for all that deregulated, free markets cannot self-regulate. Competition self-regulates the system in a haphazard sort of way for a while, but the trend towards oligopolies means that eventually competition consolidates itself and systematically eliminates any potential challengers.

So you have people’s houses being foreclosed. You have hard-working, educated people either being retrenched as their company goes under or unable to find a job in the first place. You have companies and individuals in massive amounts of debt and unable to dig their way out - and unable to get any new credit with which to grow their business/stimulate the economy. You get the exact opposite of trickle-down economics, basically, and so you get a lot of angry, poor, unemployed people demanding action. And so you get Occupy Wall Street.

Now: because so much of this is a generalised anger, because you have so many people who don’t really understand economics properly, you get a lot of misplaced rage. You get a lot of incoherent and unrealistic demands from individuals, you get no centralised leadership but just a kind of mob. A lot of these people are using Wall Street as a touchstone for unrelated issues because they are, more than anything else, angry at being lied to - the media, financial sector and government all said, implicitly or explicitly, that it was going to be okay. These are the right moves. Trust us, we know what we’re doing.

So, inevitably, you get a bit of bleeding over into other issues - one protester demanded an end to the culture where consumer products define identities, which is the other main lie the media sells us (“Buy this product and you’ll be like us”). But, generally speaking, it's righteous anger. Anger at things these people really deserve to be angry about - the whole point of democracy is that government should be working for everyone, not a select elite.

But still, much of the crowd is angry in a generalised way, and the knowledgeable ones can't rise to leadership roles because there is no hierarchy...which means that it’s basically an angry mob - no coherent demands, no clear strategy. Just make noise and make them take notice. And so far this ad hoc strategy has worked quite well - in many ways the lack of demarcated borders makes it much easier to attract numbers because if you have any issue in that general spectrum you can join, and the lack of clear demands provides airs of unpredictability that bolster your bargaining position.

But this point is a bone of contention for many commentators, especially regarding the Australian protests. We can see Europe’s reasoning; they suffered as much as the US did in the GFC, and while they may have Dead-Cat Bounced for a while, several countries are teetering on the edge again. Other economies around the world are even worse off - China’s growth is slowing and it has wealth inequality orders of magnitude worse than the US.

The sense in Australia is that these people really copped it, and really need to fix things, but we sailed through the GFC relatively unscathed - and through a combination of a well-regulated financial sector, a strong budgetary position, effective stimulus measures and sheer luck, we did. But that doesn’t mean these things are irrelevant to us in Australia.

It’s obvious that things that happen to the US and EU economies inevitably affect us, so there is a case to be made simply from solidarity. The United States political system is so corrupted by the power Wall Street has that it’ll take a massive, coordinated effort to get real change on any kind of meaningful scale - it’ll require pressure not only from American voters but from American lobbyists and from the International community. The Australian government, along with the EU nations and indeed the rest of the world, needs to make their voices heard on this - they need to make it clear that the US needs to get its act together because their folly affects us all.

But the other thing is, we need to be vigilant. You hear a rebranded version of trickle-down economics when it comes to the mining sector - which, whatever side you come down on, is undoubtedly the industry that will define our economic climate for the next few decades at least. You see the makings of oligopolies in the supermarket price wars, in the hugely concentrated ownership of media (and its ridiculous lack of accountability in law); you see the offshoring of jobs and profits that result. You see opposition to the NBN based on the idea that it’s interfering with the free market, despite the fact that the current telco oligopoly leaves Australia with considerably worse internet than economically comparable nations. You see Tony Abbott saying he’ll dismantle clean energy investment programs if he wins government because he believes in the free market (except when it comes to protecting the jobs of whoever's hard-hat he’s borrowed that day). You see a general reluctance to regulate what businesses do, in the opposition to the carbon tax - again under the guise of what’s best for “working families.”

We may not have a touchstone like Wall Street in Australia that can serve as the focal point for our issues, but you hear the same rhetoric threatening to gain ground at every day, if you know what to listen for.

The result of this, however, is that the Australian protesters look even more unfocused and shambolic than those in the US. Which is why I think it’s time to concentrate our efforts and put out a coherent set of demands - the protests should continue because they add weight to our demands but they should be part of a two-pronged attack. The amorphous nature of the movement has so far been an advantage, but now that we’ve got the numbers, now that we’ve made ourselves visible, we need to direct our energies more effectively or we’ll just burn out into nothingness.

Unsurprisingly, Taibbi has some excellent suggestions as to where to start. Those refer specifically to America’s problems, though, and Australia would need its own set. I think an in-depth discussion with people well-versed in the subject is necessary before anything concrete is decided, but as a starting point: the original Super Profits Tax was a better idea than the watered-down version; the raising of the tax-free threshold is a good idea, and the proposals of lowering taxes for small business while raising them slightly on high-income individuals are good too; and there’s no need to change much but bolstering support for the carbon tax would be a good idea too.

And as a word of caution - while you’ll probably find a lot of support for including things like gay marriage in the demands, we really should keep it out. We want to focus strictly on the issue at hand, which as broadly as I can state it is this - the ability of the hyper-rich to sell our future for their own profit. Adding social justice issues in will just confuse things and make us seem unreasonable and unfocused; exactly what we need to avoid.

We have much to be thankful for. Right now, at least, we have a relatively strong economy. We have jobs. We have excellent minimum-wage laws, healthcare, unemployment benefits, education…we are in an excellent position. But the fact remains that we can’t get sloppy - and that what America does affects us all.

We may not have quite the same wealth inequality, but in spirit and in solidarity, we are the 99%. And we are all in this together.

No comments:

Post a Comment