The Occupy Wall Street movement gathers steam

Americans take to the streets to fight corporate hegemony and reclaim democracy

By Jooneed Jeeroburkhan

In less than one week, the New Botton Line movement in the US has exploded into a viral Occupy Wall Street and We Are the 99% peaceful uprising against the growing economic injustice fostered by the greed of Corporate America and its mounting hegemony on US (and world) politics. It was on Sept 17 that a handful of students and activists, backed by people like documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, set up tents on Wall Street to focus attention on the crippling power of money over the life of ordinary Americans.

A few days earlier, the Census Bureau had reported that nearly one American in six, or more than 46-million, lived below the poverty line of $22,314 a year for a family of four. This marks “the fourth year in a row that poverty has increased,” noted the Washington Post.

The corporate media at first just ignored the movement. Then, as it persisted and grew, they ridiculed and belittled it, reducing it to “the rant of disgruntled and smelly hippies.” The police dealt violently with the demonstrators, too violently as it turned out because their strong-armed tactics backfired.

Social media breaks the corporate media blackout

The protest just grew and grew. In New York, demonstrators blocked Brooklyn Bridge. More than 700 were arrested, with unnecessary violence. Electronic social media came to their rescue and they broke through the corporate media blackout. The US (and the world) as a whole took notice.

As the week drew on, workers, trade unions, university students, climate activists, anti-globalists, and people like writer Noam Chomsky, former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and former White House advisor Van Jones joined in.

With live text, video and vimeo coverage on blogs, You Tube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, the protest got wired and spread to Boston, Los Angeles, and other cities. And it keeps spreading, with no clear leadership but with well focused battle cries and slogans.

“This movement is making the Tea Party (populist right wing Republicans) look like a… tea party,” said Feingold. “This kind of citizen reaction to corporate power and corporate greed is long overdue,” he added. “This is the beginning of non electoral politics, the only way to break the stranglehold of big money on the US government,” said writer David Swanson.

1% of Americans own 40% of the nation’s wealth

The slogan “We Are the 99%” refers to the fact that, according to Nobel economist Joseph Stiglitz and sociologist William Domhoff, the top 1% of Americans own more than 40% of the nation’s wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), while the bottom 80% of the population own only 7% of the wealth.

According to the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), that top 1% own more than half the country’s stocks, bonds and mutual funds, while the bottom 50% of Americans own 0.5% of these investments. And the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities states that the top 1% of Americans “is taking in more of the nation’s income than at any other time since the 1920s.”

As the discontent spread and snow-balled, the White House chimed in: “I don’t know if it’s helpful” to the administration’s push for its American Jobs Act, said Bill Daley, Obama’s chief of staff and former employee of the JP Morgan Chase mega-bank.

“I feel a lot of sympathy for… the general sense among Americans as whether we’ve lost the sense of possibility,” said Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner who, as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, arranged the rescue of Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs in 2008.

Appearing on Tuesday before the Joint Economic Committee of Congress, Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, said he “can’t blame” protesters for “taking to the streets” while high unemployment and slow economic growth continue. “They blame, with some justification, the financial sector for getting us into this mess,” he added.

Reaganomics and the ballooning corporate clout

The discontent has been building up at the grassroots across the US since the introduction of “reaganomics” in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan decided to reduce government spending and regulation, as well as the Income Tax and Capital Gains Tax.

The corporate greed that ensued led to ever-bigger mergers and growing financialization of the economy. Matters worsened with the repeal in 1999 of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, removing the separation between commercial and investment banking along with the conflict of interest prohibitions between the two.

The war policies of George W. Bush, the astronomical sums poured into the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq through mega-contracts to “friendly” companies (involving among others Vice-President Dick Cheney), the sloppy accountability and the “disappearance” of tens of billions of dollars only worsened the situation, which the crash of 2008 brought to a head.

Corporate clout has ballooned, globally but also within the US itself where the administration is hostage to the Military Industrial Financial Congressional Complex. According to Global Trends, of the world’s 100 largest economic entities in 2009, 44 were corporations.

The largest, Wal-Mart Stores, had revenues exceeding the respective GDPs of 174 countries, including Sweden, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, and employed over 2 million people, more than the entire population of Qatar. If it were a country, it would have the 22nd largest economy in the world!

Massive tax evasion and fat government contracts

Other examples: Shell had bigger revenues than the combined GDPs of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the 6th and 7th most populous nations in the world, and together home to 350 million people. Sinopec, China’s leading energy and chemical company, was bigger than Singapore. Ford was bigger than New Zealand.

To make matters worse, wrote Arianna Huffington on her post last year, “America has two sets of rules, one for the corporate class, another for the middle class”. “The middle class by and large plays by the rules and watches its jobs disappear; the corporate class games the system, making sure its license to break the rules is built into the rules themselves,” she added.

Quoting the Government Accounting Office (GAO), she denounced “the ability of corporations to cheat the public” out of $100-billion a year “by using offshore tax havens (clinically dubbed financial privacy jurisdictions), leaving the rest of us to pick up the tab.”

Using 2004 White House figures, she wrote that 83 multinational corporations (MNCs) paid $16-billion in taxes on $700-billion in foreign active earnings, putting their tax rate at around 2.3%. At the same time, 74 of these MNCs “received government contracts in 2007 from the government, i.e. from the taxpayers.”

“Corporate personhood” ruling of the Supreme Court

The last drop was delivered last year by the US Supreme Court which, by a 5-4 vote, ruled in favour of “Corporate Personhood”, meaning corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money to buy the election results they want and manipulate politics and policy in their self-interest.

According to the Alliance for Democracy, “that ruling overturned previous Court decisions that limited corporate money in politics.” “In lifting the previous federal ban on corporate independent expenditures, the Supreme court has overridden laws in 22 states banning independent expenditures by corporations and unions,” the AFD said immediately after the ruling.

Reclaim Democracy is one of many US organizations fighting to rollback the concept of corporate personhood. It is campaigning for an amendment stating that “corporations are not persons and possess only privileges we willfully grant them.” “Granting (them) the status of legal persons effectively rewrites the Constitution to serve corporate interests as though they were human interests… This doctrine gives a thing illegitimate privilege and power, and undermines our freedom and authority as citizens,” it says.

This is the deep backdrop against which Americans, young and old, women and men, of all colours, are coming together to assail corporate greed, to display the suffering and humiliation which growing impoverishment is inflicting upon them, and to demand that their leaders act to curb the clout of corporations and give back power to “We the People”.

The struggle is national, and also global

The struggle is national. It aims to overturn the trend towards ever-greater corporate cloud. Its exact demands are not yet precise and definite. It is a work in progress. There is no clear leadership but the watchwords are converging, the crowds are getting bigger and the shouts are getting louder.

One line of action is a proposal by Congressman Peter DeFazio and Senator Tom Harkin, both Democrats, for a tax on the trading of stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Declaring Wall Street a “gambling casino,” DeFazio said the new tax would “raise needed revenue for the Treasury and rein in speculation on Wall Street.”

And the struggle is also global. In the words of the ANSWER coalition, one of tens of organizations that have joined the nation-wide movement: “We are waging wars all over the place, our youths are being sent to fight unknown enemies, the arms industry continues to reap huge contracts and profits while the middle classes are losing their jobs and their homes, and the war in Afghanistan is costing us $330-million every day, an amount equivalent to the salary of 8000 teachers in America.”

The movement is still very peaceful. Protesters have not reacted violently to police brutality. But in the wake of 9/11, the US has armed itself with powerful repressive tools, from privacy intrusions to surveillance of all kinds, from its privatized “prison industry” to the practice of torture at Guantanamo and its many other hidden gulags worldwide.

The Homeland Security Act, widely denounced for its assault on civil liberties, is being constantly reinforced in preparation for unspecified “major catastrophes”. Two bills are moreover pending in Congress, one to authorize the President to shut down the Internet in an emergency, the other to set up “martial law” type prisons on army camps around the country.

* Published in print edition on 7 October 2011

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