If there is one convenient media put-down for the “Occupy Movement” it is that it has no coherent set of demands, no apparent leader and no clear organization.
For Canadian commentators, including government representatives like Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, the additional complacent comment is (paraphrasing): “the movement may make sense in the United States where disparities are so apparent, but we are not an unfair society. The complaints of the 99% against the 1% do not apply to us.”
So much of what is now known under the general heading of “occupy” — with its local manifestations of #occupywallstreet, #occupylondon, #occupybaystreet, #occupyottawa, and so on — put me in mind of a powerful speech I heard in the fall of 2001. It was mere weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Centre, Pentagon and hijacking of civilian aircraft. I had been invited to present to a conference in Michigan of the Environmental Grantmakers. It is an influential group of US Foundations, and the invitation was unusual in that the grantmakers do not like to have poor supplicants (such as Sierra Club of Canada) right at the banquet. Clear rules were set out that I could not ask for support at the gathering, but, still, I was asked to talk about Canada-US issues.
Traveling there was all made worthwhile through the rare privilege of hearing the keynote speaker. Bill Moyers was seared raw with the emotion of 9-11 and the response of the Bush administration. His speech began with extolling the fact that the heroes of 9-11 were all in the public service; that despite the decades of exultation of the private sector over government service (the great mantras of the Reagan-Thatcher legacy) in crisis, it was the public health service, the firefighters and the police who risked their lives and were now lauded.
He reviewed in meticulous detail how in response to the attacks on the twin towers George Bush’s government had expanded perqs for the wealthy. Taxes on the super rich were reduced to spur on the economy so badly rattled by the attacks (as if any evidence existed that such an approach helped anyone but the super rich to become super richer). Americans were urged to go out and buy cars, that much I had seen on the TV news. But I had not realized that, as Bill Moyers put it, “the deductions for the three martini lunches are back.” If Naomi Klein had already written Shock Doctrine at that point I would have been thinking. “Ah yes, this is how they do it.”
Moyers’ crescendo of anger (which I am recalling from memory) cascaded with, “These guys know that sacrifice is for suckers; the class war was waged over the last decade and they declared themselves the winners long ago.”
Since then, the gluttony of the one percent has worsened. The gambling economy, aptly named “casino capitalism,” has allowed the creation of fictitious economic activity – making money out of nothing. Buying and selling bad debt paper with little or no equity to back it up. Inventing more clever and interesting derivatives, and hedge funds. The worst of the worst is typified by Goldman Sachs that actually encouraged their clients to buy investments which GS then bet their own money would fail. Former New York Time journalist, Christopher Hedges, discussed Goldman Sachs’s ongoing raiding of the public purse in a speech on Thursday in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, just prior to being arrested:
“Goldman Sachs, which received more subsidies and bailout-related funds than any other investment bank because the Federal Reserve permitted it to become a bank holding company under its “emergency situation,” has used billions in taxpayer money to enrich itself and reward its top executives. It handed its senior employees a staggering $18 billion in 2009, $16 billion in 2010 and $10 billion in 2011 in mega-bonuses. This massive transfer of wealth upwards by the Bush and Obama administrations, now estimated at $13 trillion to $14 trillion, went into the pockets of those who carried out fraud and criminal activity rather than the victims who lost their jobs, their savings and often their homes.”
Yes, the abuse was worse in the U.S., but no thanks to our banks — or to the Harper government. The banks wanted to merge and go global. But the previous Liberal government and former Finance minister Paul Martin refused to allow it, although the Canadian business community and the banks went ballistic.
Still, in Canada, the gap between the richest and the poorest has widened. And the rate at which it is widening is faster than in the U.S. We know from good and solid research, such as that in Spirit Level: Why greater equality makes societies stronger (Wilkinson and Pickett, Bloomsbury Press, 2009) that the healthiest, most resilient societies are those with a strong and secure middle class, and the lowest gap between rich and poor. And yet the compassionate framework of the social safety net in Canada is being eroded nearly daily.
That growing gap only scratches the surface of why the occupy movement is important. As cities tire of the encampments, the pressure is on to remove the protests. Ironically, it the presence of the homeless, those with mental health and drug addiction issues that have posed a huge challenge to those setting up camps. The Occupy Ottawa protesters have spoken openly of the challenge they face as street people join the outdoor village, offering free food and a non-judgemental space. The death of a homeless woman in the Vancouver camp points to the need to ensure safety within the protest, not shut them down.
We are all the one percent when it comes to the wealth of the planet, the triumph of consumption over survival. This conflict has been described by economist David Korten as the struggle between “life and money.” The climate crisis is driven by the same blind forces that think the NASDAQ and the Dow are measures worth valuing. If we are, as most scientists attest, so disrupting global climate as to threaten our children’s future, what sense is there in a good investment portfolio? If you have no religious frame of reference, forgive me and please accept this bit of scripture as at least thought provoking, “for what does it benefit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?”
Of course, the occupy movement is outside politics and leaderless. How could it not be? The so-called leaders are all co-opted by the giant scam called global economic growth.
To speak in such terms will no doubt be denounced as heresy by the economic priesthood — whether Harper, or Obama or Cameron. So protesters gather in encampments, in a loose affiliation of people reaching out in various ways, trying to articulate that something is rotten at the core of modern society — that we seem to be unwillingly engaged in a global suicide mission.
No one wants to be the first to say, “Excuse me, but are the lunatics running the asylum? Can’t we have a healthy economy, and yes, even capitalism and corporate profits, that serves the interests of communities and that accepts its marching orders from democratically elected governments?”
Let Greens be the first. Let our policies light the way for those who are ready to face the threats to our future, clear-eyed and unafraid. #Occupyyourfuture. Bring tents.