Four weeks into its life, Occupy Wall Street has already confounded both its critics and its well-wishers. Far from twittering away its energies after an initial burst of enthusiasm as predicted (or feared), it appears to have touched something in average Americans in every corner of the country. Nor does the lack of visible leaders seem to affect its durability; a long list of visible issues no doubt more than making up for the absence of prominent names.
This by itself is one huge achievement. Too long have American politics been muddied by the insistence on glitter, the distraction of television charisma extinguishing fundamental political debate.
More significant by far is its other contribution. Packing a wallop the size of Texas, the Occupy movement’s “99% versus 1%”, has hit home as no other phrase in recent times. Like Gandhi’s brilliant 1942 slogan, Quit India, it says it all. That it is here to stay needs no more proof than Dean Baker’s smart heading to his article this morning, “David Brooks, Bard of the 1%”. Like the term, “Catch-22”, 99%-1% is now an indelible piece of the national lexicon. And just as worthy are its authors of this famous praise of the novel’s author, “if Mr. Heller never writes another word, his reputation is (still) high and secure.”
In a sense, then, a great battle has already been won. The usual presidential year network-ballyhooed emptiness of non-issues and side-issues is ready to be replaced by a simple and stunningly obvious statement of fact; one that underlies so many familiar problems – jobs, education, housing, health…even the Patriot Act and the wars real and virtual. Imagine a campaign speech that starts with, “Does the Declaration of Independence begin with, ‘We the 1%’?” Capable (but hopefully, untainted) hands could run that single statement all the way to the end zone, whether the uprights lie in a state legislature, a Governor’s mansion, the Capitol, or the White House.
To many, a disquieting aspect of the Occupy movement is the myriad of slogans that animate its throngs. Even in a relatively small city, an Occupy rally may boast of several dozen unrelated themes, each expressing some issue dear to its proponent. Recently there have been several articles suggesting that these disparate strands be streamlined into two or three succinct demands. One such article by Rand Clifford outlined three focused demands:
1) End corporate personhood
2) End the Fed
3) End military adventurism
Nothing wrong with these, or other equally logical, demands. But I have an even more basic problem, with the entire notion of ‘demanding’. Let me explain.
More than three decades ago in New Delhi, India, I was attending a protest seminar. Speaker after speaker denounced the double dealing and mendacity of the government. At the end of two days of such berating the assembly was set to pass a resolution making demands — of the same government! It was left to one of the last speakers, the writer and thinker Arun Shourie, to gently touch upon the incongruity here. Instead of asking such a supposedly terrible government to do something, he suggested, why don’t you say what you will do? His words have always remained with me.
Similarly, here you are, assembling on the streets because the politicians have sold you out, the higher judiciary has judges who sup with the Koch’s, and the 1% who own all three branches of government don’t care a hoot about you, your jobs, or your lives. To paraphrase what Arundhati Roy once wrote of the Indian elite, they have seceded from their own country and fellow citizens to form a virtual republic. You have recognized what is happening and denounced this 1% as conniving, ruthless, greedy, rapacious, self-serving, even traitorous (what else is profiting by sending jobs overseas, or making fortunes out of national calamities). At the end of it all, you want to make demands… of…these same people and their hirelings?
Instead the Occupy movement needs to have simple things that its supporters can do. What we demand of ourselves makes the difference, not what we demand of the other side [see The Banality of Hype].
When the British Raj, on behalf of the English textile tycoons, decimated the native spinning and weaving cottage industry in India (globalization ain’t all that novel), Gandhi did not run for the Viceroy pleading for increased Indian production quotas. Instead, he went to the Indian people asking them to boycott foreign cloth and wear Indian homespun, even though it was costlier and coarser. It sparked a revolution all its own.
Many years ago in 2004, I wrote an article called American Swadeshi, suggesting that John Kerry or any other American politician could start a prairie fire by doing something similar in America. Kerry, and Obama after him, were never serious about the hemorrhaging of American jobs. The Republicans, of course, actually think outsourcing and Free Trade are all part of Divine Purpose. This is therefore something neither the Democrats nor the Republicans will do. It has to be done by us.
A very simple idea, then. Each time you go to the store, whatever you are buying, note where it is made. If it is made outside the USA (as it is 99% of the time – another 99%-1% issue!), ask the store if they have a made in the USA substitute. If not, either leave saying that you will look for another store where an American-made equivalent is available, or tell them that you will stop buying this non-American-made product after six months. And do. Thousands and thousands of customers insisting on American-made products will make for a groundswell of consciousness, besides sending word up the chain to the 1%, where dollars and cents light up attention as no demand can.
As another well-known slogan goes, Just do it.
NIRANJAN RAMAKRISHNAN lives on the West Coast. He can be reached at