COLUMNS Stephen Berk

Power to the People

The spontaneous uprisings characterized by the Greek General Strike, as well as the “Occupy” movement that began with Occupy Wall Street and has spread virtually everywhere indicate that a true crisis is now occurring in the neoliberal world order.

The spontaneous uprisings characterized by the Greek General Strike, as well as the “Occupy” movement that began with Occupy Wall Street and has spread virtually everywhere indicate that a true crisis is now occurring in the neoliberal world order.  This is the free trade, race to the bottom regimen imposed on the world over the past thirty years by elite countries led by the US.  It began in earnest in the Reagan/Thatcher eighties, when massive deregulation, de-unionization, and privatization were imposed on formerly welfare state economies.  These economies had previously regulated banking to keep the kinds of wild speculation that had led to the Crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression from recurring.  They also had strong unions protecting family wage jobs, partly through tariffs to prevent unfair competition from cheaply made foreign goods.  The regulated capitalism that made the West prosperous after the Second World War and was gradually spreading to lesser developed countries was jettisoned, as the ideas of Milton Friedman, dean of “Chicago School” economics took over.

We now live with the fruit of that world order, a new robber baron economy dominated by what the Populists of 1896 called “the money power.”  Trade liberalization and deregulated banking have brought about a predatory system wherein CEO’s of transnational corporations and titans of international finance have become multi-billionaires, while the world majority has been relegated to industrial or agrarian peonage or begging.  The once robust US industrial economy has been hollowed out, as cheap goods from China and other economies where workers make pennies an hour, flood our market.  Few Americans work in industry any more, as most work in the low wage, largely nonunionized service economy.  American consumers are now as up to their ears in debt as were the farmers victimized by big banks and railroads in the hungry 1890s. And so, like their forebears of that era, they are rising up.  The problem now, as then, is unregulated capitalism, which creates vast inequalities.

The Tea Party movement, largely funded by billionaires like media giant, Rupert Murdoch, blames government, chiefly the Obama administration, for bailing out the big banks.  In fact the bail-out began under Bush.  But the real point is that the Tea Party, echoing the modern libertarian movement, likes to pretend that all bad flows from government, and all good from the private sector.  Libertarians are blind to the ever closer connection between government at all levels and transnational banks and corporations.  In case there might be the slightest doubt, a conservative and libertarian controlled Supreme Court issued the Citizens United decision in 2010, which guaranteed control of our political institutions by big capital.

What Occupy Wall Street and like movements around the world see, which the Tea Party won’t, is that the top one per cent has bought up our political system.  Thus Occupiers don’t march on Congress, nor do they petition state legislatures, because they know that the politicians there represent the one per cent, not the ninety-nine.  The Tea Party, on the other hand, has not only been closely connected to Congress and the state legislatures, but upon gaining power in 2010, having campaigned as faux populists, they immediately got to work making sure the one per cent has it all.  They de-legitimized public unions in a number of states, passed legislation making it harder for students, the working poor and unemployed to vote, and they stand in the way of federal jobs legislation that would compel the wealthiest to pay their fair share.

The Occupiers, for their part, have no specific legislative program.  They occupy public space to bear witness for the ninety-nine per cent of people the world over who are being robbed by an order run by financial and corporate oligarchs.  They set up alternative forms, a committee of the whole, or General Assembly, and do acts of mutual caring.  “This is what democracy looks like,” they chant, thereby giving the lie to our bought politics. They give new life and hope to a rallying cry of the oppressed I often heard in my youth: “Power to the People!”

By Stephen Berk

Steve is a retired history professor from California State University at Long Beach. He's currently on the board of directors of Clatsop Community College, and teaches classes in the ENCORE program. He's written extensively on social, political and religious issues, and has been writing a column in HIPFiSHmonthly for over 5 years.