Occupy Wall Street and the New Class Struggle

The Occupy Wall Street movement has grown into a full-fledged international phenomenon. The protests are generally as peaceful as their goals are vague (let’s do something about bankers and college tuition), although some protests are getting testier. One wonders how long the protests will last once the weather in the United States turns colder. Already Chicago nurses, a pragmatic lot, have staged indoor sit-ins outside Mayor Emanuel’s office.

Wall Street has been the epicenter of the protests, but there are several other possible targets. David Carr suggests newsrooms. Actually, he means the executive suites above the newsrooms. Gannet’s Craig A. Dubow is the latest C.E.O. amply rewarded for destroying his company and further imperiling American print media.

Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams offers up Hollywood because of movie stars paid obscene amounts of money while production companies cut back on makeup artists, special effects technicians and other anonymous behind-the-camera workers. I don’t share Williams’ outrage Johnny Depp makes so much “stupid money.” Besides, this problem may solve itself. One overlooked consequence of the Great Recession is a decline in the box office draw of major stars.

The Occupy Wall Street protesters are famous for paying more attention to drumming than drawing up concrete action plans or even a list of demands, as if naming the objects of their desire will destroy the entire movement. Whatever ultimately happens to the movement commonly known as Occupy Wall Street, the grievances to which they’ve given voice won’t go away for a long time.

That’s because the grievances are fed by a contraction in the American political economy. They don’t fit into the models of liberal protest laid out in the 1950s and 1960s. The protesters aren’t demanding civil rights nor the end to an unjust war. Those battles have largely been won, or at least they’ve been resolved to the point that they won’t be fought in the streets. Rather, OWS more closely resembles the class-based conflicts of the 1930s. The OWS movement is driven by the recognition that the U.S. has become the most unequal democracy in the world. As Alexander Stille explains,

Almost all advanced industrial societies ā€” even Sweden ā€” have become more unequal. But the United States has become considerably more unequal. In Europe, the rights of labor have remained more central, while the United States has seen the rise of identity politics.

In many ways, social inclusion is increasingly becoming a compensation for economic stratification. A teenager can walk the halls of his or her high school with less to worry about than ever before, yet his or her chances of moving into the economic elite as bad as they were in the 1920s when membership in the Ku Klux Klan was at its peak.

Perhaps the next step for the Occupy Wall Street movement should be asking the question: What would Trotsky do?

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