Two Bubbles That Went Pop: Reflections on the Manipulation of Populism

February 25, 2012

by Paul Street

A slightly shorter version of this essay was originally published on Counterpunch. Long after its leading encampments have been torn down – often with brute force and (educationally enough) predominantly by Democratic mayors and with the approval and involvement of a Democratic White House – the populist Occupy Movement deserves major credit for changing the United States’ political discourse. It helped bring the nation’s savage economic inequalities and the unmatched democracy-, society-, and ecology-destroying power of the wealthy Few (the instantly famous “1%”) into the national political discussion in ways that will give it a deserved place in future American history textbooks. It performed the remarkable service of calling out the name and address of the nation’s true unelected masters: corporate-financial capital and Wall Street.

Why did it emerge in the late summer and early fall of 2011? There were precursors and inspirations from recent history that helped spark and explain the timing of the Occupy moment, of course: occupations of public space (Cairo’s Tarhir Square) to protest the rule of a dictator in Egypt and to protest neoliberal austerity measures in Spain and Greece; the December 2008 occupation of the Republic Door and Window plant on Chicago’s North Side; and the mass popular upheaval in Madison, Wisconsin in February and March of 2011 – a remarkable rebellion that included a 16 day people’s occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol. Within New York City, not far from where OWS broke out, activists earlier the same year launched an outdoor encampment (“Bloombergville”) to protest Mayor Bloomberg’s plans to cut social services and jobs – an action that provided an interesting link between the Madison upheaval and Occupy, that utilized many of the same organizational methods that would be employed by Occupy movements across the nation, and that provided some of OWS’ early activists.

Only the 1 Percent Took Your House Away

Beneath and beyond these immediate sparks, however, there lay deeper developments that provided the fuel for Occupy’s sparks to catch fire. Occupy and the broader popular and populist spirit of sympathetic opposition to the rich and corporate few it helped capture arose when it did, I think, because of the bursting of two bubbles: the hyper-collateralized real estate, credit, and finance bubble of 2001-2007; and the electoral-politics Obama hope and change bubble of 2007-2011. The popping of the first bubble – sparked by a wave of foreclosures in poor black and Latino communities that Wall Street had pumped with a wave of super-exploitive sub-prime home loans – laid bare the true elite and its culpability for the decline and indeed the breaking of American life and society. As Barbara Ehrenreich and John Ehrenreich argued in a December 2011 Mother Jones essay titled “The 1% Revealed,” the transparent crashing of the national and global economy by the financial shenanigans of the super-rich undermined the ability of the right-wing to credibly continue its longstanding fake-populist game of blaming the professional and managerial “liberal elite” for everything wrong in America. It exposed the real masters, “the 1 percent who are, for the most part, sealed off in their own bubble of private planes, gated communities, and walled estates.” Compared to the corporate and Wall Street elite, “professionals and managers, no matter how annoying, were [shown to be] pikers. The doctor or school principal might be overbearing, the professor and the social worker might be condescending, but only the 1 percent took your house away.”

The Class One Serves

The bursting of the second bubble reflected the realization that American democracy (or what’s left of it) is no less crippled by the dark cloud of big money and the many-sided machinations of capital when Democrats hold nominal power than when Republicans do. Elected in the name of progressive change and a promise to clean up a corrupt Washington, the Obama administration has been a tutorial on who rules America and the underlying conflict between capitalism and democracy. With its monumental bailout of hyper-opulent financial overlords, its refusal to nationalize and cut down the parasitic financial institutions that had paralyzed the economy, its passage of a health reform bill that only the big insurance and drug companies could love, its cutting of an auto bailout deal that rewarded capital flight and raided union pension funds, its undermining of desperately needed global carbon emission reduction efforts at Copenhagen (2009) and Durban (2011), its refusal to advance serious public works programs (green or otherwise), its green-lighting of offshore drilling and numerous other environmentally disastrous practices, its roll-over of Bush’s regressive tax cuts for the rich, its freezing of federal wages and salaries, its cutting of a debt ceiling deal (in the summer of 2011) that was all about cutting social programs instead of tax increases on the rich, its disregarding of promises to labor and other popular constituencies, and other betrayals of its “progressive base” (the other side of the coin of promises kept to its Wall Street and corporate sponsors, who set new campaign finance records in backing Obama in 2008), the “change” and “hope” presidency of Barack Obama brilliantly demonstrated the reach of what Edward S. Herman and David Peterson call “the unelected dictatorship of money,” which vetoes any official who might seek “to change the foreign or domestic priorities of the imperial U.S. regime.” It richly validated radical analysts’ jaded take on the plutocratic reality behind the heavily personalized, candidate-centered “electoral extravaganzas” (Noam Chomsky) that big money and big media stage for the citizenry every four years, telling us that “that’s politics” – the only politics that matters. In its presidential, as in its other elections, U.S. “democracy” is “at best a guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation…It is an illusion,” the left historian Laurence Shoup observed in early 2008, “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate.”

John Pilger put it well at a socialist conference in San Francisco in July of 2009. “The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist,” Pilger noted, “partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves.”

The lesson – driven home by the wildly unpopular elite-manufactured debt-ceiling crisis of July and August 2011 – suggested the wisdom of the late radical historian Howard Zinn’s clever maxim that “the really critical thing isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in – in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.” As Zinn explained in an essay on the “election madness” he saw “engulfing the entire society, including the left” with special intensity early in the year of Obama’s ascendancy:

“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us…… Would I support one [presidential] candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice.” (H. Zinn, “Election Madness, The Progressive, March 2008).

(Continued on ZNet . . .)

Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org and paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011).

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