O.W.S and the politics of class perception.

I tracked down an article I read in the nation a few years back that really stuck with me and seems to hold a special relevance with the rise of OWS: http://www.thenation.com/article/our-gilded-age

I was skeptical at first that these protesters were really accomplishing much and to a certain extent, I still feel the same way. I’ve been down to the Baltimore occupy protest and what I saw could generously be referred to as floundering. The turnout seemed to consist of about 10 people holding up signs, 5 people in a REALLY obnoxious drum circle, a few teenagers rave dancing and an odd smattering of what people who were almost certainly homeless. I felt instantly aggravated being there. I wanted to stand up on a soapbox, pull out a megaphone and scream out “There are two Green party candidates who are busy actually DOING SOMETHING you retarded hippie bastards! Fucking drumming isn’t solving anything. We live in a democracy; you change the system by electing people you agree with not by sleeping in a tent. Join the Green party and get cracking you FUCKING MORONS.”

My feelings about OWS has become more nuanced over time, however. It’s becoming clear that OWS has had a meaningful and necessary impact the quality of our national discourse. Earlier in the year the national conversation was focused on the deficit. Both parties essentially agreed that budget cuts were absolutely essentially to curbing an urgent debt crisis, with a handful of intelligent liberals like Paul Krugman squeaking meekly about the inherent illogic and cruelty of our national direction.

OWS has taken often abstract concepts of income inequality and structural unfairness and pushed them to the front of the publics mind. Pointing at statists is never enough to build public support and momentum; people need images, stories and feelings to accompany a reality to actually make it real. As this Nation article from the very beginning of this financial disaster and recession points out, the outrage at the big banks was rather muted because the class divide wasn’t as clearly and infuriatingly demarcated as it was in the during the gilded age, even though inequality and corruption was as pronounced then as it is to day. The excesses of the rich aren’t as ostentatiously pronounced and much of the upper middle class can envision themselves as being close in standing to the truly opulent.

“the elite of the first Gilded Age dressed as royalty at the Martins’ costume ball because they were consciously trying to project themselves as an upper class in a nominally republican, egalitarian society. Our elite, though obviously not afraid to spend on a grand scale, often affect a “just folks” presentation. So, though Schwarzman has his personal chef prepare him stone crabs that cost $400 apiece for a casual Saturday lunch, he hired the profoundly middlebrow Rod Stewart to croon at his birthday party. And though Schwarzman is usually photographed in a business suit, and occasionally in formalwear, many of his Wall Street colleagues prefer open-necked shirts and khakis as their work clothes. Class conflict was a lot more open, on both sides of the divide, a century ago”

Due to the media attention given to OWS, we see now a face to the 1%. McDonalds applications are thrown at protesters, images surface of mock homeless parties being thrown at big financial institutions, the rightwing opinion machine is lead in to the trap of having to deride the protesters as shiftless moochers conducting class warfare, inevitably making them come across as bitter and mean spirited, ultimately reinforcing the narrative OWS is forwarding. The public’s perception of the rich might not seem obviously politically relevant but it serves as the foundation for the self-defeating voting behaviors of the working and middle classes. If people feel as though they are one big break away from joining the 1% they are going to be more reluctant making taxes more progressive. If the rich aren’t ostensibly obvious with their wealth and disproportionate political power it is harder to convince the average voter that action needs to be taken.

The public’s conceptualization of the financial sector used to be anonymous, soulless bureaucracies that carelessly, not maliciously triggered a meltdown. We are now shifting to see these bankers as people who are aware of the havoc they are wreaking but by Darwinian or Randian justifications are blithely indifferent to the consequences of there actions.

I know its small and silly but I think this college humor video really summed up the positive impact of OWS: http://www.collegehumor.com/video/6633406/we-are-the-1
The absurd image of stereotypical and cartoonish rich WASP-y gentry being displayed on a site that is totally non-partisan and rarely political confirmed that the understanding of fundamental unfairness in our democracy was no longer limited to the left but had become a given reality in our public consciousness. The cartoon constitutes the reality in the American mind and the grotesque oversimplification paradoxically constitutes success. We don’t need the public at large to be aware of the merits of a tax on financial transactions or to understand the precise danger of an unregulated derivatives market. As long as the public senses intuitively that they are being screwed, the political landscape has been improved for the better.

At a certain point the effectiveness of the occupation is going to have peeked. It is amazing to me that they have continued to attract media attention for as long as it has. At that point I would like to see the occupiers transition to working to grow the only anti-Wall Street party. It doesn’t matter how much the public’s perception has changed as long if it can’t be translated in to meaningful electoral success and then that success translated it to meaningful legislation. However, it is undeniable that these protests have made the ground for Green party growth much more fertile.


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