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Globalising the Occupation: Wall Street and the world

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Friday, 14 October 2011


It all began without a body, without a party, without even, it seems, a program. A day of rage against the iniquitous financial system was being organised in the Manhattan Financial District in the spring of this year to take place in September. But the protesters, mostly of a vaguely socialist orientation, camped out on September 17 in Wall Street. New York's Mayor Bloomberg was already worried. A few days after the gathering of protests signing up the '99 percent' against the small but all powerful one percent, Bloomberg began channelling. Could New York become a bloodied Tahrir Square? Might his financial brethren be placed in the dock of the people's justice?

The Occupy Wall Street protests offer a considerable smorgasbord of political dissatisfaction. Protesters have been sighted carrying such idiosyncratic paraphernalia as a 'President Paris Hilton' placard in the hope that Hilton might make the grade. (Things have gotten that bad.) Protests featuring Jesus Christ and how he would disapprove of America's corporate behaviour have also come to the fore, a no doubt deeply troubling development for those who believe that the marketplace is God made real.

Perhaps this is the first protest movement of any substance the United States has seen against the products of what Christopher Lasch termed the 'Culture of Narcissism'. 'The happy hooker,' he wrote in 1979, 'stands in the place of Horatio Alger as the prototype of personal success.' America was suffering from one grotesque personality disorder, an order that was celebrated as robust vitality by Tom Wolfe in 1976. Welcome, he boasted in 'The "Me" Decade and the Third Great Awakening', to the 'new alchemical dream' of 'remaking, remodelling, elevating, and polishing one's very self'. That same America elected Ronald Reagan.

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Efforts were made, again spearheaded by Bloomberg, to discredit the rising movement as a disconnected, irrelevant group of idiosyncratic individuals who were themselves narcissists. It wasn't Wall Street the movement was targeting, argued the mayor, but those making $40 to $50 thousand a year, the dissolute knockers having a go at the true struggling workers of the world. In other words, the protesters were not ganging up on the bankers and financiers so much as those working in the IT section of Goldman Sachs.

The Fox News network joined in, making an almost desperate attempt to isolate various members of the movement as anachronistic dreamers marching under the Red Banner. The reality remains, however, that the messages that inspire human dignity did not perish as the Berlin Wall was being removed. The death of socialism should not have resulted in a death of a constructive critique of the market. The movement, as a result, is becoming more broadly based by the day.

The Occupy Wall Street movement as it is developing resonates with Lasch's message. While Lasch might have disagreed with aspects of the push (in the 1960s, he wrote against rationalist ideas of human nature and social planning), his critique of the narcissistic personality that plunders, manipulates, yet seeks validation at the same time is something that should concern us.

There are, in fact, signs that these protests may be assuming something of a historical force, a juggernaut on adrenaline. There is a global disaffection against the demands being made by the austerity merchants and the belt tightening autocrats. 'The Wall Street protests sort of inspired everything,' explained Kai Wargalla, who has co-created the Occupy London Facebook group. 'It was just time to start here. We need people to step up and speak out' (Daily Mail, Oct 12). The London protests on the financial district are scheduled to take place this weekend. To date, some 1400 cities have witnessed protests of this anti-corporate campaign (Press TV, Oct 11).

The movement has even taken curious twists. The Iranians are sniffing out prospects of a propaganda coup. Gen. Masoud Jazayeri of Iran's Revolutionary Guard has put forth his own observations, not all of which are off the mark. The protests, he surmises, have been against corporate greed and the gap between rich and poor. This has the makings of a revolution that will topple what he called the Western capitalist system. Witness, he claims, the beginnings of an 'American Spring.'

Political protests also produce odd convergences. Occupy Wall Street protesters may be surprised to have it pointed out to them that some of their grounds for dissatisfaction are similar to the Tea Partiers. Vice President Joe Biden recently commented that there was, in fact, something 'common with the tea party movement', and lunacy was not one of those features. Both protest movements have found common ground against throwing good money after bad, against the idea of socialising massive losses. Amidst the anger, the dissatisfaction, and the general loss of hope, will be the greatest challenge in an era where the corporation must be humanised, and rational expectations recaptured. Narcissism must be banished, and the children made to grow up.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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