There is no danger that the protesters who have occupied squares, parks and plazas across the nation in defiance of the corporate state will be co-opted by the Democratic Party or groups like MoveOn. The faux liberal reformers, whose abject failure to stand up for the rights of the poor and the working class, have signed on to this movement because they fear becoming irrelevant. Union leaders, who pull down salaries five times that of the rank and file as they bargain away rights and benefits, know the foundations are shaking. So do Democratic politicians from Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi. So do the array of "liberal" groups and institutions, including the press, that have worked to funnel discontented voters back into the swamp of electoral politics and mocked those who called for profound structural reform.
Resistance, real resistance, to the corporate state was displayed when a couple of thousand protesters, clutching mops and brooms, early Friday morning forced the owners of Zuccotti Park and the New York City police to back down from a proposed attempt to expel them in order to "clean" the premises. These protesters in that one glorious moment did what the traditional "liberal" establishment has steadily refused to do--fight back. And it was deeply moving to watch the corporate rats scamper back to their holes on Wall Street. It lent a whole new meaning to the phrase "too big to fail."
Tinkering with the corporate state will not work. We will either be plunged into neo-feudalism and environmental catastrophe or we will wrest power from corporate hands. This radical message, one that demands a reversal of the corporate coup, is one the power elite, including the liberal class, is desperately trying to thwart. But the liberal class has no credibility left. It collaborated with corporate lobbyists to neglect the rights of tens of millions of Americans, as well as the innocents in our imperial wars. The best that liberals can do is sheepishly pretend this is what they wanted all along. Groups such as MoveOn and organized labor will find themselves without a constituency unless they at least pay lip service to the protests. The Teamsters' arrival Friday morning to help defend the park signaled an infusion of this new radicalism into moribund unions rather than a co-opting of the protest movement by the traditional liberal establishment. The union bosses, in short, had no choice.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, like all radical movements, has obliterated the narrow political parameters. It proposes something new. It will not make concessions with corrupt systems of corporate power. It holds fast to moral imperatives regardless of the cost. It confronts authority out of a sense of responsibility. It is not interested in formal positions of power. It is not seeking office. It is not trying to get people to vote. It has no resources. It can't carry suitcases of money to congressional offices or run millions of dollars of advertisements. All it can do is ask us to use our bodies and voices, often at personal risk, to fight back. It has no other way of defying the corporate state. This rebellion creates a real community instead of a managed or virtual one. It affirms our dignity. It permits us to become free and independent human beings.
Martin Luther King was repeatedly betrayed by liberal supporters, especially when he began to challenge economic forms of discrimination, which demanded that liberals, rather than simply white Southern racists, begin to make sacrifices. King too was a radical. He would not compromise on nonviolence, racism or justice. He understood that movements -- such as the Liberty Party, which fought slavery; the suffragists, who fought for women's rights, the labor movement and the civil rights movement -- have always been the true correctives in American democracy. None of those movements achieved formal political power. But by holding fast to moral imperatives they made the powerful fear them. King knew that racial equality was impossible without economic justice and an end to militarism. And he had no intention of ceding to the demands of the liberal establishment that called on him to be calm and have patience.
"For years, I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions in the South, a little change here, a little change there," King said shortly before he was assassinated. "Now I feel quite differently. I think you've got to have a reconstruction of the entire system, a revolution of values."
King was killed in 1968 when he was in Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers. By then he had begun to say that his dream, the one that the corporate state has frozen into a few safe clichÃ©s from his 1963 speech in Washington, had turned into a nightmare. King called at the end of his life for massive federal funds to rebuild inner cities, what he called "a radical redistribution of economic and political power," a complete restructuring of "the architecture of American society." He grasped that the inequities of capitalism had become the instrument by which the poor would always remain poor.
"Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism," King said, "but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God's children."
On the eve of King's murder he was preparing to organize a poor people's march on Washington, D.C., designed to cause "major, massive dislocations," a nonviolent demand by the poor, including the white underclass, for a system of economic equality. It would be 43 years before his vision was realized by an eclectic group of protesters who gathered before the gates of Wall Street.
The truth of America is understood only when you listen to voices in our impoverished rural enclaves, prisons and the urban slums, when you hear the words of our unemployed, those who have lost their homes or cannot pay their medical bills, our elderly and our children, especially the quarter of the nation's children who depend on food stamps to eat, and all who are marginalized. There is more reality expressed about the American experience by the debt-burdened young men and women protesting in the parks than by all the chatter of the well-paid pundits and experts that pollutes the airwaves.
What kind of nation is it that spends far more to kill enemy combatants and Afghan and Iraqi civilians than it does to help its own citizens who live below the poverty line? What kind of nation is it that permits corporations to hold sick children hostage while their parents frantically bankrupt themselves to save their sons and daughters? What kind of nation is it that tosses its mentally ill onto urban heating grates? What kind of nation is it that abandons its unemployed while it loots its treasury on behalf of speculators? What kind of nation is it that ignores due process to torture and assassinate its own citizens? What kind of nation is it that refuses to halt the destruction of the ecosystem by the fossil fuel industry, dooming our children and our children's children?
"America," Langston Hughes wrote, "never was America to me."
"The black vote mean [nothing]," the rapper Nas intones. "Who you gunna elect/ Satan or Satan?/ In the hood nothing is changing/ We ain't got no choices."
Or listen to hip-hop artist Talib Kweli: "Back in the '60s, there was a big push for black ... politicians, and now we have more than we ever had before, but our communities are so much worse. A lot of people died for us to vote, I'm aware of that history, but these politicians are not in touch with people at all. Politics is not the truth to me, it's an illusion."
The liberal class functions in a traditional, capitalist democracy as a safety valve. It lets off enough steam to keep the system intact. It makes piecemeal and incremental reform possible. This is what happened during the Great Depression and the New Deal. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's greatest achievement was that he saved capitalism. Liberals in a functioning capitalist democracy are at the same time tasked with discrediting radicals, whether it is King, especially after he denounced the war in Vietnam, or later Noam Chomsky or Ralph Nader.
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