While the organic Occupy Wall Street movement is similar to the spontaneous Arab Spring uprisings that began last December in Tunisia and Egypt, OWS is eerily reminiscent of the run up to the American revolutionary war.
Three ingredients fueled the original American Revolution. The first was egregious British taxation policy exacerbated by the fact that the colonies had no representation in Parliament. The second was the growth of liberalism and its concepts of natural rights and the social contract. Finally, Americans embraced the values of “republicanism” -- in its original form – which criticized both British corruption and the power of the English aristocracy.
For eighteenth-century American colonists, democracy was a novel idea, whose influence grew from 1763 onward and culminated with the publication of Tom Paine’s Common Sense.
For twenty-first-century Americans, democracy is not a novel idea, but rather one that has been dormant since the sixties – when Americans realized that nobody was free until everybody was free. Since then a horrendous series of events –obscene tax cuts for the rich and powerful, a dreadful war with Iraq, and a catastrophic financial meltdown – have shredded the social contract and promoted grinding economic inequality, causing many Americans to wonder if our democracy can survive. That’s the fertile ground the seeds of the Occupy Wall Street, aka “Stand up for the 99 percent,” movement has fallen on: average Americans fear their families are being left behind while the most fortunate 1 percent grow wealthy.
Thirty years ago during the Reagan presidency, conservative economic ideology began to dominate American political discourse with three malignant notions: helping the rich get richer would help everyone else, “a rising tide lifts all boats;” markets were inherently self correcting and therefore there was no need for government regulation; and the US did not need an economic strategy because that was a natural consequence of the free market. As a consequence of Reaganomics America’s working families were abandoned in favor of the rich. Inequality rose as middle class income and wealth declined. As CEO salaries soared, fewer families earned living wages. 99 percent of Americans were left out.
At the onset of the revolutionary war, colonists were loyal to King George III. They wished to remain in the British Empire and asked the king to intervene with parliament on their behalf. When he instead declared them to be “in rebellion,” representatives of the original thirteen states adopted the Declaration of Independence. The declaration includes a laundry list of charges against the King: “The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”
At the onset of Occupy Wall Street, the 99 percent remain loyal to America. They’ve asked Washington to intervene in their behalf but nothing has happened – and some conservatives have declared them to be “in rebellion.” Now Occupy Wall Street has a laundry list of complaints about the government.
To declare their independence in 1776, colonists had to let go of their belief the King would rescue them. To declare their independence in 2011, Americans have to let go of their belief that the present government will rescue them. And Americans must challenge the notion that democracy can work in an economy run by multinational capitalism – that we can expected fairness and humanity in a country where 1% of the population controls 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and earns 24 percent of total income.
We must reframe our beliefs. Since the beginning of the United States there have been two competing positive myths. One features the “Triumphant individual…the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor.” The other myth celebrates “The Benevolent Community… neighbors and friends who roll up their sleeves and pitch in for the common good.”
Over the last thirty years, the “1 percent” usurped the myth of the Triumphant Individual and declared: “We did it on our own.” “We don’t need government, it gets in our way.” “The rest of you (99 percent) are envious; suck it up.”
Now the “99 percent” must respond with a rousing defense of the Benevolent Community. Recently Massachusetts Senatorial Candidate Elizabeth Warren invoked this powerful imagery during a campaign address: “there is nobody in this country who got rich on his own…You built a factory out there? Good for you… you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.”
Occupy Wall Street indicates that we’re inching towards revolution. We need a twenty-first century Declaration of Independence that addresses three difficult subjects: the size and power of multinational corporations; the wealth of the 1 percent; and the role of money in the American political process. Daunting challenges but not impossible if the 99 percent operate as a Benevolent Community.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org