Movements, Not Presidents: The Nationwide Fight Against Neoliberalism
Just months after becoming president of the United States, Barack Obama met with some of the world's most powerful executives.
It was a time of crisis: The economy was wavering dangerously in the aftermath of the housing bubble's great burst, and many of the nation's largest financial institutions had just been yanked from the brink of collapse.
Though the effects of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression were disastrous for countless Americans, the executives with whom the president spoke on that day in March of 2009 were doing just fine. In fact, many were doing better than ever.
While millions faced the prospect of losing their homes, their jobs, and their life savings, the same CEOs that helped spark the crash were paying themselves and their employees lavish bonuses.
The executives reportedly "offered several explanations" for their salaries, but the president quickly reminded them, "The public isn't buying that."
"My administration," Obama famously added, "is the only thing between you and the pitchforks."
It was a striking, even prescient, remark. Having ascended to the White House on a wave of grassroots support, the president was expected to take a stand for the public—it was expected that those guilty of wrongdoing would be held to account, that those harmed by Wall Street's rampant fraud would receive the full support of the administration.
But such high hopes were quickly dashed.
Or perhaps they were, from the start, misplaced. While President Obama did indeed ride a wave of grassroots support into the White House, that wave, it must be remembered, was generously bolstered by Wall Street cash.
And while the hopes of the millions who voted for change they could believe in may have, in the last analysis, been ill-advised, Wall Street certainly got its money's worth.
"Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street," Matt Taibbi noted in 2009. "What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place."
The Obama administration quickly downplayed such concerns, attempting to foster a genial relationship between the winners and losers of the crisis.
"The President emphasized that Wall Street needs Main Street, and Main Street needs Wall Street," Robert Gibbs, Obama's press secretary, said after the high-profile meeting.
Thankfully, the public didn't buy that either.
Sarah Jaffe first arrived in Zuccotti Park five days after the birth of what would come to be known as the Occupy Wall Street movement. As she explains in her book "Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt," the scene somehow exuded potential.
"The site of the original occupation had been almost accidental, a second or third choice when the police had thoroughly barricaded Wall Street," she writes. "And yet the space seemed perfect, at least at first; within it, there were always many things happening simultaneously."
While examining this space, Jaffe recalls, she met an emergency medical technician, there generously offering her services to the protesters.
"So far we've given out lots of Band-Aids," she told Jaffe, "because everyone has blisters, lots of cough drops because nobody has a voice."
Perhaps inadvertently, in her description of the nagging physical ailments that accompany tireless protest, this unnamed EMT nicely underlined the political reality that drove thousands to join the burgeoning movement in the first place.
The public has long been without a voice—at least, without a voice powerful enough to justify America's official classification as a representative democracy. While democratic forms remain, any lingering residue of the popular will has long since been driven out of the political process. The results, while devastating, have not been entirely surprising.
The last several decades have been characterized, in short, by rapid accumulation of wealth and income at the very top and stagnation for nearly everyone else; as a consequence, the middle class has withered and extreme poverty has soared.
And given that economic power converts so seamlessly into power in the political realm, the results of such a state of affairs have also been quite unsurprising. As Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page tersely summarized in their influential 2014 study, "When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose."
Of course, the financial crisis did not bring these trends into existence. It did, however, throw them into sharp relief—and as Sarah Jaffe thoroughly documents, it provided a flash point around which various movements could organize and fight back; no longer could they look to politicians for answers.
In Southern California, Walmart employees, facing the imminent threat of termination, struck for better wages and working conditions. In Chicago and Wisconsin, teachers organized in opposition to the "austeritarians" imposing punitive budget cuts while lavishly rewarding their corporate patrons.
Black Lives Matter was also born around this time in response to police killings and brutality; the movement quickly grabbed national attention and has since developed a radical economic message to accompany the struggle for racial justice.
The short-term goals of the individuals and groups in each of these contexts may at any given moment differ, but, ultimately, all are presenting a challenge to the same system, to a common enemy.
"The same wealthy class that exploits our labor, sells us bad mortgages and fraudulently forecloses on our homes has also destroyed the climate," Jaffe observed in a recent interview.
As important as naming the system overseen by this wealthy class is understanding what the system does to those living under it: Workers are exploited, public services are privatized, nature is commodified, and the needs of the population are subordinated to the needs of the market.
Such a state of affairs is not just incompatible with democracy—it is incompatible with anything resembling a sustainable future. Climate science continues to deliver horrifying news, and with each new prediction comes yet another sobering look at how ill-prepared we are to withstand the extreme weather events that are sure to grow in frequency and severity.
But though there is ample reason for resignation and despair, Jaffe's narrative provides sufficient justification for optimism, as well.
Major media outlets have also largely ignored the nationwide prison strike, launched on the anniversary of the Attica prison uprising in response to inhumane conditions. "This is a call for a nation-wide prisoner work stoppage to end prison slavery," the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee declared in a statement. And the inmates are not alone: In Alabama, the guards have joined the rebellion.
Fight for $15 has made quite remarkable progress given the strength of the opposition, as have the Democratic Socialists of America and the Movement for Black Lives.
The task ahead, though, remains as daunting as ever, and, as Jaffe observes, "Movements do not build in a straight line, climbing inevitably toward success." They zig and they zag, sometimes at the wrong moments; failures usually outnumber successes.
But if you're not failing, are you really challenging power?
These lessons, along with the others Jaffe seeks to impart, are easy to forget in the midst of what Noam Chomsky has termed the "quadrennial extravaganza." We inevitably become fragmented, we are infected by electoralitis, we take our eyes off the common enemy. We also lose sight of the progress that has been made, even in the face of temporary defeat.
"On the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016, Bernie Sanders called for a 'political revolution,' a movement that could take the country back from the billionaire class," Jaffe writes. "But that revolution has been taking place — and will continue to take place, if it is to succeed — outside of a presidential election or any other election."
If there is any hope of fundamentally altering the obscene imbalance of power in the United States, it is not to be found in corporate boardrooms or in the platforms of the nation's two dominant political parties. It is to be found, rather, within the movements cultivated by those organizing in opposition to perpetual war, unfettered capitalism, systemic racism, and environmental degradation.
In the process of confronting these realities, there is a place for electoral politics, but it's relatively small; it has never been enough to show up at the ballot box, hoping for change to trickle down from on high.
On this point, Jaffe relays the words of Kshama Sawant, the socialist member of the Seattle City Council: "if we continue to assume that change happens because benevolent leaders at the top hand it down, then we will continue to ask nicely, and to be disappointed, frustrated, and disempowered when asking nicely does not do the trick."
Trouble, in other words, is indispensable.