Protest to Occupation: From Capitalist Democracy to Self-Determination

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Many political pundits of various media institutions were quick to demand the Occupy Movement declare a list of grievances at its founding. Though not immediately, and not uniformly, a set of demands has emerged from many of the 100 or so occupations found in cities across the United States. Demands include such proposals as the end to the war on terror, the formation of a single-payer health care system, a higher tax on the wealthy, the overturning of the Citizens United v. the FEC Supreme Court decision, restoration of the guidelines once found in the Glass-Steagall Act, and various other forms of economic regulation as well as limitations on money's influence in politics.

These demands give some idea of what the Occupy Movement is about, but focusing too narrowly on the demands misses the movement's very important core element. The most important feature of the Occupy Movement was the very process by which the demands were made.

The Occupy Movement is important in that it no longer looks to the government, as it currently is, to acheive its goals. The General Assembly, the legislative body present at each occupation, represents in miniature an alternative governing organization meant to both demonstrate everyday people's ability to manage their affairs as well as act as a body to be compared to the government itself. In fact, Goldsmiths, University of London anthropologist David Graeber, a founder of the Occupy Movement, made many statements indicating this as the reason for the movement's being organized as it was.

The Occupy Movement is about people's exercising self-determination, its very process of decision making to be juxtaposed to the current lack of power participants feel in our capitalist democracy.

The preamble to the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City clarifies:

"As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power."

"We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments."

The Occupy Movement is young and yet at its beginning, as corporations and the class which operates them are so entrenched in U.S. politics.

The most popular reason given for why the wealthy and corporations exercise so much power politically involves the process of campaign finance. In the past decade the majority of money presidential and congressional candidates raised came from contributions of $200 or more. Less than one percent of the population made these donations, 81 percent of whom had incomes of more than $100,000 a year. These donations pale in comparison to the amount of money businesses donate directly to candidates' political parties, which comprise near 90 percent of total contributions in any given election.

Corporations not only have a powerful effect on elections, but are a virtually inseparable part of the political process itself.

The capitalist class is able to use the wealth generated by the corporations which they run to continuously lobby on their behalf.

Lobbying is a constant component of corporate strategy. In 2010, the oil and gas industry spent over 146 million dollars while employing 802 lobbyists, the pharmaceutical industry spent over 244 million dollars while employing 1,612 lobbyists, and finance (insurance and real estate) spent over 475 million dollars while employing 2,563 lobbyists. In comparison, public sector unions, representing the largest non-corporate, politically active institutions in the U.S., spent just over 14 million dollars and had a mere 150 lobbyists.

Further, as corporations are institutions which both own and manage a nation's resources, they naturally become politicians' biggest source for relevant information with which to form public policy. Corporate directors, executives, and those they employ as top level accountants or lawyers form the basis of the nation's largest think tanks and policy discussion groups.

Think tanks organize corporate money and industry experts to discuss issues surrounding public policy. They debate current policy, identify issues of their own and train experts. Of the ten largest think tanks in the U.S., seven are either explicitly conservative or promote ideas in line with the stated goals of the Republican Party. The other three define themselves as non-partisan. Some think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, focus on promoting experts and their interpretation of policies via public relations efforts while other think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute or Chamber of Commerce, focus more on providing information and expertise to involved corporations, policy discussion groups, or directly to politicians.

Policy discussion groups are leaner than think tanks and tend to be focused more directly on policy formation. These are corporations' political working groups, where experts from think tanks present ideas to the heads of corporations and position statements are formed. One of the most powerful policy discussion groups is the Business Council, which began as a quasi-governmental advisory group in the 1930s only to become an independent entity in 1962. The Business Roundtable is the Business Council's active branch. These groups either meet directly with members of Congress and the Executive branch or work through lobbyists.

Corporations are, therefor, not only economic entities. They represent institutions of organized power and are the foundations that allow the capitalist class the constant influence in politics which the Occupy Movement stands against.

The economy, having developed so that a small group of capitalists wield such a vast amount of power, forces progressives to reconsider capitalist democracy. The directors of these corporations are not only member's of the nation's wealthiest one percent, but have been observed by sociologist G. William Domhoff to also be 90 percent male and 95 percent white. Capitalism has developed such that it undermines democracy itself.

The Occupy Movement introduced many to the process of self-determination through the management of their occupations, from the preparation and distribution of food, to the organization of hygiene and the production of media. The challenge is to expand on the practice of self-determination and employ it on a vast scale.

Another Occupy Movement founder, Naomi Klein, presented how this might be done in The Take, a 2004 film on Argentinian worker's self-management of factories. The film demonstrating how communities united to operate factories abandoned by that nation's companies in a recession. Curiously, they used the slogan "occupy, resist, produce." Many of the reclaimed factories continue to operate effectively under management elected from the workers' own ranks in democratic self-management systems established during their occupation.

It is time for progressive forces in the U.S. to seriously pose capitalism as a question. At the end of November, the Republican governor's association met in Florida in part to talk about messaging. Frank Luntz, a Republican political messaging strategist, insisted that conservatives replace the word "capitalism" with the words "economic freedom" or "free market". A recent change to Texas textbooks also replaced "capitalism" with "free enterprise system".

The capitalist question, when posed as a matter of economic freedom, prompts those without economic power to respond "freedom for whom?". The question begs an answer that calls for the need for a "democratic economy". This idea can be conceptualized as parallel to the goal of "democracy in the workplace", a phrase the labor movement currently uses in its struggle.

There can be no real political democracy until there is economic democracy.

 

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  • Thank you for your comments, E.E.W. Clay. They are, as always, quite enlightening.

    Thanks, as well, to Occupy the Air for having me on the radio show today. If there is a recording of that show I will post it here.

    Posted by Jean Paul Holmes, 12/17/2011 6:02pm (6 years ago)

  • Hopefully, much, much will be written and acted upon concerning the recent "messaging"urged by the ideologues of the right and far right.
    In a not so backhanded way, they admit that they-and capitalism are in a very scary situation with the advent of the peoples Occupy Movement.
    A 1 December article in The National Memo and particularly the comments thereto show how Fox pollster Frank Luntz, is petrified at what the popularity and efficacy of Occupy is, magnified in his statement :"They're having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism."
    Moreover, Occupy is demonstrating an alternative governance of self-determination and democracy by and for the occupiers, a "socialism" that eyes the accumulated wealth of imperialism, particularly banks and industrial cartels(what Leninism did) as wealth which should be democratically controlled, regulated and distributed.
    No wonder this scares Luntz-another thing that should scare Luntz is that like MLK said in Oslo in 1964 that the movement for Civil Rights was "..not afraid"-Occupy has inherited this same fearlessness- and as our own W.E.B. Du Bois urged us, "If we use our brains and strength there is no way to stop our ultimate triumph as creators of modern culture if we use our strength and our brains. And what, pray, stops us but our dumb caution our fears our very sanity. Let us then be insane with courage."

    Posted by E.E.W. Clay, 12/15/2011 11:33am (6 years ago)

  • In his recent piece in Political Affairs, Jean Paul Holmes lays out with precision and clarity the insidious influence that corporations have on our supposedly democratic governance.

    Lobbying is a constant component of corporate strategy. In 2010, the oil and gas industry spent over 146 million dollars while employing 802 lobbyists, the pharmaceutical industry spent over 244 million dollars while employing 1,612 lobbyists, and finance (insurance and real estate) spent over 475 million dollars while employing 2,563 lobbyists. In comparison, public sector unions, representing the largest non-corporate, politically active institutions in the U.S., spent just over 14 million dollars and had a mere 150 lobbyists.



    He further describes the domination of corporate and business elites in terms of total donations to political campaigns -- "Less than one percent of the population made these donations, 81 percent of whom had incomes of more than $100,000 a year. These donations pale in comparison to the amount of money businesses donate directly to candidates' political parties, which comprise near 90 percent of total contributions in any given election."

    Through an extensive network of think tanks and institutes, a constant stream of pro-corporate policies are continuously fed to representatives in Congress and Senate. Corporations are "institutions of organized power and are the foundations that allow the capitalist class the constant influence in politics which the Occupy Movement stands against."

    The Occupy movement, as Mr. Holmes asserts, is an attempt "to seriously pose capitalism as a question." It isn't simply a matter of producing a list of demands for reforms, although that may be part of what is happening. But rather, he argues, it is time to ask whether we must reconsider the compatibility and internal contradictions of the concept of "capitalist democracy" itself. "The Occupy Movement [has] introduced many to the process of self-determination." Perhaps what we need is not capitalist democracy, but rather "democratic economy" -- self-organizing, self-directing, self-empowering. "This idea can be conceptualized as parallel to the goal of "democracy in the workplace", a phrase the labor movement currently uses in its struggle."

    In conclusion, Mr. Holmes states "There can be no real political democracy until there is economic democracy."

    Posted by Occupy the Air, 12/13/2011 4:12pm (6 years ago)

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