The Age of Robber Barons
The plutocracy in the US and in the rest of the world is facing unprecedented tremors. The epicenter of these tremors lies in New York City where over 100,000 people have come together for ‘Occupy Wall Street’ (OWS) protest. The people have camped themselves in Zuccotti park in lower Manhattan, only blocks away from Wall Street and have continued to occupy Wall Street, Times Square and other parts of wealthy Manhattan on a daily basis since over four weeks. The protesters who claim to represent 99% of the population, essentially the working class, are demanding their fair share from the top 1% who have gotten super-rich in the past few decades by the most blatant money-grab ever experienced in the American history.
The 1% in India: Licensed to Loot
In India, too, the people are beginning to recognize – and reject – the political economy of corporate greed, corruption and plunder, promoted by Governments. It’s true that even a modest Lokpal law is unpalatable for the managers of the political economy of plunder. But it’s not enough for the anti-corruption movement to stop at the demand for such a law. Along with the 99% across the world, let us build a movement that names and challenges the political economy that promotes and protects the greed, corruption and loot by 1% at the cost of the poverty, devastation and suffering of the 99%!
The OWS protest, which was started mainly by poor whites comprising mainly unemployed youth and students, has now attracted support of labour unions, people of colour and suppressed classes who commonly see themselves as victims of Wall Street with the US government not only an accomplice but aiding in the loot. As Ralph Nader put it, “It carries the moral outrage and the moral authority of the vast majority of Americans who are excluded, disrespected, defrauded, unrepresented, underpaid and unemployed. The American dream has turned into a nightmare.”
It is by far the biggest struggle against corporate greed and gross concentration of wealth the US has ever witnessed in its history. The OWS protests have gone viral and have spread not only to more than two dozen cities in the US including major cities like Chicago, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington DC but also over 1000 cities around the world. The movement world over is now being called ‘Occupy Together’ and is turning out to be a major class struggle against corporate elites.
The protesters have organized themselves peacefully and have sustained themselves week after week with thousands of supporters bringing food and other supplies. The spontaneous, leaderless movement is now widely supported and people speak, sing, dance, live, share and protest together.
Message of International Longshore and Warehouse Union
It is remarkable how a few thousand people are rattling corporate supremacists and their oligarchic servants in Congress. This big group of people is a motley crowd of all colours, races, cultures strung together by the common thread of victimization by corporations and Wall Street oligarchs. The protest, which was dismissed by ‘pundits’ as outlandish, incoherent and lacking direction has metamorphosed into a representative struggle of the working class and the message for anybody who wants to see and is not affected by intellectual bias of perfect ‘wordings’ is pretty clear. The message is for equality and a fair share.
The long recession brought on by the financial sector and their extremely fraudulent schemes actually ultimately benefited the super-rich and the corporations and have pushed major population into unemployment, uncertainty and homelessness.
To see it in economic perspective, it is worthwhile to glance over some numbers. According to a report by Joint Economic Committee of Congress, the total income of top 10% of the wealthiest households jumped from 34.6% in 1980 to 48.2% in 2008. The sharpest increase was in top 1% whose share rose from 10% in 1980 to 21% in 2008. But that is just income. The fraction of wealth now owned by top 1% is 40% of the nation’s wealth. That is a staggering number, making America one of the most unequal countries in the world. The wealth has concentrated in the hands of business tycoons, CEOs and financial sector. The financial sector managed to pull the greatest scam in financial history but still managed to get the bailout money from the US government. The rich were helped on the backs of the poor; it was a bailout of the rich from the poor.
This is a legacy of Reganism in 1980s when he started cutting taxes on the rich and made policy changes to benefit only the rich. Clinton did away with welfare and with Bush-era tax cuts for the rich and Obama endorsing it, the policies favoring the rich further entrenched. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “The US business class is highly class conscious, and their members have long seen themselves as fighting a bitter class war, except they don’t want anybody else to know about it.” Now that the war has come out in open, plutocrats have panicked.
Oct. 15 Global Day of Action Sweeps the World
The protection of business class by the ruling elites ushered the Age of Robber Barons in early 19th century when the American business and finance gained wealth and power through most unethical means. It has continued till date. The fear that the poor would demand a share from the rich was the basis on which the constitution was written. The rebellious energy of people came to be partially absorbed by ‘wars.’ “I should welcome any war, for I think this country needs one,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in 1897 who went on to become the President of the United States. A heady mix of nationalism and capitalism gave rise to a ‘War Nation’ which profited the elite, who reaped profits from foreign markets, filled their coffers, but allowed the poor to toil and barely survive. The revenue from taxes went into war, leading the country into cycles of recessions, also inherent in capitalism which so much relies on militarism. The innumerable wars the US waged can be directly linked to recessions. Today, the ‘war nation’ remains in force benefitting the rich and the corporations, while the country reels under recession.
What we see in the OWS protests is a continuation of the trajectory of class struggles which has been a historical driving force in the US polity. Seeing this struggle in historical perspective brings out similarities to earlier struggles that are quite striking. Intellectuals like Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Klein and others have now thrown their weight behind these protesters who at the moment don’t seem to budge unless some systemic change is initiated. Nobody knows where it will go but the protests have been welcomed all over the world especially in Europe where similar struggles like against austerity measures have been going on since quite some time.
The rage of the ruling elites over these protests is reflected in the police brutality when peaceful protesters were corralled, shoved to the ground and pepper-sprayed without any imaginable provocation. JP Morgan gave over 4 million dollars to a New York Police Department charity fund. The police have been constantly looking for some sign of riot, but the protesters have been tenaciously non-violent and peaceful denying them any opportunity of foul play. Still, over 700 protesters were arrested in one day in a march on Brooklyn Bridge in New York. More were arrested in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco. The arrests, harassment by police has continued but the still people are traveling from all over the country and joining in the protest. The disenchanted youth has laid bare the ugly face of corporate America who have displayed their sole interest in accruing profits with minimal or no regard for human life and misery.
From New York Times Editorial, October 8 2011
No wonder then that Occupy Wall Street has become a magnet for discontent. …the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself. It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge.
The corporations are sitting on over three trillion dollars in cash and the profits of many, especially oil and financial sector have been unprecedented. This really cuts through the charade of the country being broke and downgraded by S&P over debt payments. The US is definitely not broke as the ‘eminent economists’ have pointed out, but the money and wealth have become so highly concentrated that even champions of ‘free market’ like Milton Friedman might wonder to the extent, the oligarchic, crony-capitalist and imperialist system has gone to rob the people.
The difference between the rich and the poor today is unprecedented and unparalleled in the American history. In 1960s, the rich paid around 90% in highest marginal tax rates; today they pay less than 30% in highest marginal tax rates. The focused and blatant robbery, especially for past 30 years has finally roused the working class. One of the placards on Wall Street says, “It’s not recession, it’s robbery;” which quite sums up the tone and basic character of this struggle. The age of Robber Barons has not passed; the robber barons have only changed their masks.
Cornel West loosely likens the struggles and the protests that have engulfed the US to Arab Spring, calling them as the US Autumn. This is right after about a month of labor protests in Wisconsin where the state employees fought tooth and nail for their collective bargaining rights. The disillusion with the two party system has never been so stark than now. As the Democrats resolutely refuse to be progressive on any issue, the line between them and the Republicans has blurred to a non-distinguishable degree. Both have proved themselves to be servers of corporate interests and as a consequence of it, people are left with no choice but to take to streets. Whether it is Arab Spring, or the US Autumn, or the turmoil in Europe, or the uprisings in Greece, Yemen or wider Middle East; this rebellious energy needs direction to establish people-centric societies. The ground is increasingly becoming ripe worldwide for social transformation and it provides a definite window to get past the age of Robber Barons to more equitable and just societies.