I was talking with a friend of mine the other day about Occupy Wall Street. She said to me "This is what I've been waiting for my whole life... I told her I feel exactly the same way.
The only difference is that she's in her early twenties, and I'm in my early fifties.
I'm not sure which is better. She's had an entire lifetime full of nothing but the downsizing of her country, and the theft of her future. The only two presidents a person her age could have had any mature appreciation of were George W. Bush, the thief and liar, and Barack Obama, another thief and liar. She has never known an America that wasn't reeling under the assault of Wall Street plutocrats and the kleptocrats they hire to do their bidding in Washington.
On the other hand, people her age could at most have suffered with the pain of being under this siege for a mere five years or so, unless they happen to have been astonishingly attentive and precocious preteens. My generation, on the other hand, has been living this nightmare for three solid decades now, through Republican abominations and -- in many ways, worse -- Democratic as well. We have known indisputably throughout this era that a better country is not just a pretty aspiration or a theoretical proposition. We know that because we once lived there. I'm glad I had that experience. But, that said, carrying around the heartache of observing our national suicide by greed for more than thirty years' time has also been a painful, soul-numbing burden I wouldn't wish on anyone.
I don't know what will come of Occupy Wall Street, and its brother an sister movements in cities across the world. On the one hand, this is the most hopeful development I've seen since the dark finale to the year 1980 gave us Ronald Reagan and took away John Lennon. On the other, I've learned through ugly experience and hard-won (and, the more cynical amongst us might say, belated) wisdom not to expect too very much from purported agents of sweeping change. Consider the last two of note. Egyptians rose up and threw off their own violent kleptocracy through mass action. Less than a year later, the military rules the country and is repressing dissent using the same bloody tactics of the prior regime. Closer to home, we've got a Wall Street occupation of a rather different sort than the one in Zuccotti Park. The guy who -- when he wanted something from us 99 percenters -- spoke passionately of change and hope and the fierce urgency of now, has instead allowed Wall Street to occupy our White House, and has delivered to millions of hurting Americans a substitute program of no change, crushed hope, and the tepid lethargy of whenever.
So hope is not always a good bet. Who therefore knows what will happen on the streets of Manhattan in the coming weeks and months? At some point, The Man may decide he's had just about enough of this truth-telling sh*t, thank you very much, and sweep the place clean. Don't want to be giving the ordinary folks watching at home too many ideas, y'know? If that happens, other possibilities immediately arise. Maybe the folks on the street resist. Maybe if they do, lots and lots of people come running to their side to stand up both for what they're protesting and for their very right to protest. Maybe a police sweep could be the best thing that could happen, causing the movement to metastasize in a swelling of national support. It could all get very interesting, very quickly. Or not.
I dunno. Here's what I do know, however, and why I allow myself to once again risk being hopeful: This is the first time in a very long time that we've had any honest content to our national political discourse. All else follows from there, and thus this is the crucial first step, the sine qua non for any chance whatsoever of righting the badly listing ship of state. If we cannot identify our true maladies, we cannot possibly hope to treat them.
And we have been doing neither for a very long time. The most astonishing and depressing aspect of our era is (or, perhaps, has been) the fact that, at the very time when conditions are such that one could almost not possibly write a script more favorable to the rise of a robust politics of the left in America, precisely the opposite has been happening. What left there is left in the country has been moribund, its heartbeat barely detectable. Meanwhile, what is described as the left, operating under the banner of the Democratic Party, has shown itself every bit as capable of whoring for capital as the other party, though it swims even deeper in the cesspool of treason by pretending it is still the party of the people. And then there's right, which has absolutely gone insane by increments over these last three decades. I don't know if my young friend quite believes me when I tell her that the rhetoric and policies of a Cheney or a Bachmann or even a Romney would have been inconceivable (except, by definition, as fringe lunacy) in Gerry Ford's 1970s. But they would indeed have been just that. We have traveled very far from that world.
In any case, think about it. Suppose you were asked to play "Sim America" and create from whole cloth the conditions you thought most likely to produce a vibrant political left, rising up to reform the country, as it did during the 1930s and 1960s. What factors might you include in your blueprint? How about a nation riddled with economic insecurity at best and widespread real suffering at worst? Check. Rampant and unremitting unemployment? Check. A rapacious class of financial predators and wealthy plutocrats who have taken every penny of economic growth for themselves over the last three decades, leaving only stagnation for the rest of us? Check. A distribution of wealth so skewed toward the rich that it would embarrass Zimbabwe? Check. A political class completely unresponsive to the needs of the people and devoted instead to serving the gluttonous pigs whose money puts them in office? Check. A massively broken health-care system devoted to profits instead of health? Check. Endless government spending of taxpayer money to bail out the disastrous bets of sociopathic Wall Street nihilists and their destruction machines, combined with zero support for ordinary citizens struggling with ballooning debt and underwater mortgages? Check. A generation of downsized middle-aged workers who know they will never again be able to restore the basic economic stability they once enjoyed? Check. A generation of young people looking ahead to lives of lousy jobs (when any at all can be found), lousy pay, massive debt, massive taxes to pay for previous borrowing, epic environmental destruction, endless wars, and living at home with their parents rather than starting families of their own? Check. A discredited far-right previous government whose crony capitalist policies made profound and direct contributions to all of the above? Check.
And, if none of those items seem alone sufficient to generate a vibrant progressive response, how about all of them (and lots more), all at once? Check, check, double-check, and checkmate. Here is the check for a lovely meal of greed, theft, war and planetary destruction held in your honor. Or at least at your expense. What, you don't want the bill?
I can hardly think of better conditions for the rise of a New New Left. But what do we get, instead? The freaking Tea Party!! Like I said, this is the single most depressing characteristic of our time (and because of the deep and broad array of repugnant choices for that loathsome title, that's saying a lot). It's like, even when you win you still lose.
But maybe, at long last, things are finally turning around with the advent of the Occupy movement, and people will at last get it. And maybe they'll figure out who the real enemy is, and act accordingly. Unfortunately, however, even that prospect involves a longer term solution. Consider that the best-case scenario for January 2013 is that the hopelessly hapless Barack Inc. Obama will once again be inaugurated as president. And that even if he can't get Larry Summers and Timothy Geithner and Robert Gates to be in his administration because they're all too busy making money, he will most assuredly be getting people like that. Don't expect to see a Paul Krugman or a Joseph Stiglitz or a Paul Volcker on Obama's team any more than he appointed Elizabeth Warren to run the Consumer Protection Bureau or went for the public option in his health care obombination. And that's the "best" case scenario. Far more likely will be a Scary Perry or a Ken-Doll Romney taking the oath that day.
There actually is one better scenario, and this is again why the Occupy movement represents a breath of genuine hope (as opposed to the merchandised, fast-expiring kind Obama peddled in 15-second TV spots in 2008). Our solutions no longer reside, if they ever did, in the ballot box. The Republicans are a sheer criminal enterprise, whose entire function is to redistribute wealth from the rest of us to already wealthy elites. But the Democrats are actually worse, because they do exactly the same thing, while trading on the party's past reputation for representing the public interest. For my money (which, along with yours, is precisely what is at stake), Obama and Clinton and their ilk in Congress have betrayed me and the country more than, say, any of the Dicks -- Cheney, Armey or Nixon. You expect the a**hole kid on the playground to live up to his reputation. It hurts a lot more when your best friend is the one sticking in the knife.
No, while there will still be elections and presidents and a new Congress, no matter who those people are in 2013, they will all be cut from the same cloth, and I guarantee you that you can't afford that frock. This country is going to have pretty much go all Egypt on the ruling class to have any hope of changing what fundamentally ails us. That doesn't mean the Constitution has to be shredded and new institutions of government created. It just means that, at the end of the day, the people in government must be responsive to the public interest, not the oligarchy's.
That's a hugely tall order in many ways. But, on the other hand, context is everything. People are fed-up now, and growing increasingly sick of being subjected to a steady diet of bogus wars, gay-bashing or empty platitudes in the place of real solutions to real problems. There is a giant vacuum today in American politics, which will only grow dramatically in scale about two years or so into a Republican administration's term. But political nature abhors a vacuum, and the opportunity today for a genuine set of people-first politics to attract votes (whether as a third party or through a hijacking of the Democratic Party) has not been greater in decades. More and more, Americans are coming to the realization that the choice between Democrats and Republicans is the political equivalent to the choice between Goldman Sachs and Citibank. That is to say, none at all. And more and more they will demand a real alternative, if only from sheer desperation.