Tyrants are ruthless. They throw people in jail, execute them without trial, suppress the press. They can rule for decades. They can attempt to set up dynasties. But in the modern age, tyrants have a shelf life. We live in an age of activism, and tyrants are always looking over the shoulder to make sure the military is behind them, the human rights community isn't breathing down their neck, or their "adoring masses" aren't camped out in the public square demanding their exit from history.
Our leaders in the United States aren't tyrants. Instead, we face the tyranny of "business as usual." Here's an example from a recent report, America Loses, from my colleagues at the Institute for Policy Studies. In 2004, Congress passed a bill that allowed U.S. corporations to repatriate their profits sitting in overseas accounts. It was supposed to be a deal: the government wouldn't tax the profits and the corporations would use the money to create jobs. The corporations went ahead and brought home more than $100 billion, the IRS looked the other way, and you want to know how many jobs were created?
Worse than zero. The 13 companies profiled in the report actually cut more than 60,000 jobs. And now the corporations are asking Congress for yet another tax holiday, and this time they promise, really promise, to create jobs. Yeah, right.
Another example is Apple, which, under the late Steve Jobs, touted itself as the "think differently" brand. But that was just a marketing niche. It was business as usual in its manufacturing process over in China. "Disguising himself as an American investor, journalist-playwright Mike Daisey visited the Foxconn complex and documented dozens of reports of abusive labor practices, including the widespread use of child labor, the intimidation of employees seeking redress for workplace injuries, and more generally an oppressive combination of lengthy shifts, constant surveillance, and authoritarian management," writes Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Peter Certo in An Alternative Eulogy for Steve Jobs. "The Foxconn Daisey described was essentially a private-sector partner to the Chinese government’s program of oppression: it kept would-be activists busy, monitored, and under control."
During the Arab Spring, Tunisians and Egyptians and Yemenis and Bahrainis all poured into their public squares to demand the ouster of their tyrants. Now, inspired, Americans are pouring into their public squares to demand the end of a different kind of tyranny, the tyranny of Wall Street, of business as usual.
Wall Street hasn't been listening. Investment bankers are more worried that their bonuses, which averaged over $125,000 a person last year – or more than twice the median household income in New York state. And corporations haven't gotten the message either. "You know, everybody in Germany roots for Siemens," the CEO of General Electric Jeffrey Immelt told 60 Minutes. "Everybody in Japan roots for Toshiba. Everybody in China roots for China South Rail. I want you to say, 'Win, G.E.'"
GE has already won, in a sense. It has more money in offshore accounts – $94 billion – than any other U.S. corporation, and Jeffrey Immelt has personally made $56 million in executive compensation over the last five years. GE workers haven't won, though. The company has dumped 32,000 U.S. workers since 2004, and that's bad news for the U.S. economy. No wonder that few Americans are rooting for GE.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is a protest uniquely suited to a generation schooled in social media. There are no leaders: it's crowd-sourced. Nor does it have any specific demands beyond a thorough reorientation of American priorities. It's as if thousands and thousands of people have "unliked" Wall Street (not that they "liked" Wall Street much to begin with).
The movement is growing. Labor unions have signed on. Celebrities are flocking to Liberty Square in New York City. The Democratic Party is trying to hitch its wagon to the protests, if only to get the president's jobs bill through Congress. Protestors from overseas are joining in to give the benefit of their recent experiences. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the movement siphons off some disgruntled tea partiers whose populism has veered leftward.
Like the World Social Forums and their credo of "another world is possible," the Occupy Wall Street protests are free-form, creative, sporadically anarchic, and multi-issue. They have also taken on the character of their location. In California, protestors are focusing on the state's budget crisis. Here in Washington, DC, the protest had a strong anti-war emphasis, and one segment was involved in an anti-drone protest at the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.
Wall Street analysts like to talk about "corrections" in market behavior. In periods of "irrational exuberance," millions of people think that the value of IT companies will rise forever or that sub-prime mortgages get traded around in an endless daisy chain of speculation. Then the market comes down from its tab of Ecstasy, and it crashes. The correction sets in.
Perhaps the same language can be applied to U.S. society as a whole. The political and economic elites indulge in their own all-night party of irrational exuberance that rewards financiers with profits and politicians with lobbying dollars. They legally steal as much as they can until the other 99 percent gets fed up and comes over to turn off the music and turn on the lights. Party over. And the system corrects itself.
Or does it?
Occupy Wall Street isn't calling for piecemeal reforms. It's not interested in becoming yet another correction. It doesn't have a laundry list of demands. This can be a profoundly unsettling experience for NGOs in Washington ("but what do they want?"), for politicians around the country ("why aren't they supporting our plan?"), and even for those who oppose the movement ("why can't they just demand something that we can ridicule already!").
When the tyrant resigns or goes into exile, the crowd exults. Then begins the difficult task of preventing the tyrant's cronies from seizing power. Then begins the challenge of building something new.
For many years, the progressive movement has said the system here in this country is broken. But our effort to fix the system has been seriously under-resourced, as if we were trying to repair a malfunctioning jet engine with a pair of toothpicks.
Occupy Wall Street doesn't necessarily have better tools. But it has a lot of hands and a lot of energy. And that's what we need to build something new.