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OccupyWallStreet: Nucleation and crystallization

Update:  Here is a photoessay from The Atlantic of last weekend’s OccupyTogether rallies held throughout the world.

In one of the more recent comment threads, r u reddy pointed me to a guest post that David Graeber wrote for NakedCapitalism about the origins of OccupyWallStreet and asked me if I cared to comment.  Why, yes, yes I do.

But first, I would like to point out one line that caught my attention in Graeber’s piece.  It’s about Obama and young people:

How, then, do you expect a young American voter to feel, after casting a vote for a fundamental change to our political and economic system, on discovering that in fact, they have elected a man who twenty years ago would have been considered a moderate conservative?

And that right there gives you an indication about where Graeber is coming from.  To him, it is Obama’s betrayal of “young people” that he appears to be most concerned about.  In his post, he uses the words “young”, “youth” or “student” 2o times.  Granted, it’s a long post but by the time you’re finished reading it, you get the distinct impression that young people with student loans are the ones suffering the most in this economy. How does Graeber think the unemployed middle aged professional feels about the election of a man who she knew would be a moderate conservative during a period of economic crisis?  It just goes to show that Graeber doesn’t understand his movement.  So, what is David missing, because this thing is still solidifying and we’re not certain what it’s going to look like when it’s finished.  Here’s my comment response with editing:

I think David Graeber gives himself and his friends too much credit. Remember, the PUMAs were in Denver with much the same grievances. We were the working class (of all ages, genders, educations and professions) that got thrown under the bus in 2008. And there were hundreds of people who showed up in Denver at the PUMA headquarters.  During the convention, this blog’s readership spiked to 52,000 unique page hits in a 24 hour period.  There were many people who were deeply concerned with the direction the 2008 election had taken.  From what I can tell, this movement might have started sooner if the left itself hadn’t sat on it.

The problem is that there was no way in hell anyone other than Obama was going to get the nomination no matter how valid the challenger and justified the cause. So, we had to wait through a couple of years of Obama trying to parley with the repulsive Republicans, knowing that he was going to be a disaster. It wasn’t that difficult to figure out what Obama really stood for after his scorched earth policy in the primaries, the way he accepted the treatment of voters in Florida and Michigan, his thin voting record, his vote for telecomm immunity, his campaign’s tolerance of overt misogyny against Hillary and Palin, his courtship of evangelicals coupled with the disappearance of reproductive rights issues from Democratic congressional candidate’s websites in 2008, and his acceptance of millions in campaign funds from the financial services industry.  If young people had unreasonable hope about what Change!™ Obama was going to bring, it’s because Graeber and his buddies at DailyKos whipped them into a frenzy.  We regular people who saw Obama for the passive, opportunistic, investment class wannabe that he was had to live in the wilderness while people in Graeber’s cohort fell madly in love and then out of love with Barry. It was DailyKos that lead the jeers and taunts against us by scornfully calling us a “shrieking band of paranoid holdouts”. Jane Hamsher called us a “certain kind of woman” and to this day, most of the left blogosphere can’t get over the conditioning that associates PUMA with racism and bitter menopausal women who don’t have college degrees.  But now that the Graebers of the country are over their infatuation, the revolution can return to it’s regular program already in progress.

Secondly, I see this from a chemistry perspective. In supersaturated solutions, you can frequently get crystallization to occur by scratching the inside of the beaker with the sharp end of a glass rod. The scratch provides something called a nucleation site onto which a crystal can build. At a certain point, crystallization becomes a concerted process and the crystals fall out of solution. But it won’t happen unless conditions are right for crystallization. The concentration of the solution has to be high enough, the temperature has to be just so, it has to be scratched or seeded.

This is what we have with OWS. The conditions were right for crystallization and the movement fell out because they picked the right spot to scratch.
I see a lot of blather about anarchism and anti-capitalism and blahdeblahdeblah. I’m not sure those things are as relevant as Graeber makes them sound. That’s because the 99% consist of more than the friends he has with the crushing student loans and you will find people of all ages, genders and backgrounds at an occupation site. That right there should tell Graeber something. This was a movement waiting to happen that goes way beyond his little circle of progressive activists. This is a movement for former PUMAs as well.

And the movement is going to be what it’s going to be. It is an open source concept. That means that the users determine the way the end product works by collaboration, iterations, feedback and adjustments. Anarchism means absolutely nothing to me. (well, I know what it means, I just don’t think it’s a particularly good working model) Neither does tearing down a capitalist system. I don’t think the vast majority of regular people want to tear down the system. I think they want out from under its grasp.  They want an economy that works for them.   That may mean reviving and reinforcing the rules or setting up a parallel economic system without Wall Street’s dirty mitts on everything but whatever that means, the open source model demands that it is responsive to the users and can’t be determined beforehand by people like Graeber.

So, I think what Graeber and his friends did is scratch the glass. The public was ready for this. And now, he and his friends need to lose their egos and join with the rest of us so we can get things done.

By they way, Graeber is overlooking the strength of this movement if he thinks it is centered on young people. The reason it has become so incredibly successful is that when there is a big march, it is the regular working stiffs who show up to them. If it were just students, the media would have an easier time writing them off. But it’s not just students. It’s union people and unemployed people and teachers and actresses, and chemists and older people and families with kids. The 99% percent really means just about everyone.  It doesn’t mean “all 99%-ers are equal but some 99%-ers who are young with student loans are more equal than others”.  Some of us have mortgages and no jobs.  We count.

When I was at the march on October 5, I saw why the thing was taking off. The marchers looked like everyday people, not like a college pep rally. Graeber is already out of touch with his own constituency. Not only that but as wonderful as young people are, I’m surprised that OWS hasn’t taken advantage of the technical expertise of some of their sympathizers who are NOT 25 years old. We might be middle aged but most of us cut our teeth in the internet age. We wrote the first web pages, configured the first apache servers and played with the tools that brought us smartphones and social media. We learn quickly. It’s stupid to leave all that knowledge and experience on the table in order to celebrate youth to the exclusion of all else.

For example, there are a lot of unemployed scientific researchers right now.  To pass on all that talent, experience and insider knowledge while the OWS young people go on at length (and quite foolishly sometimes, IMHO) about the dangers of modern pharmaceuticals would be to miss out on an opportunity to make pharma work for the public at large and not just the big corporations.  Instead of going off on uninformed tantrums about how evil pharma is, they could be spending their time figuring out how to set one up that would be responsive to them.  Like having the 99% own the patents and decide what therapeutic areas to explore. I am willing to help take on this kind of working group on if there isn’t one already formed.  Preserving our scientific infrastructure is extremely important and there is all that talent and knowledge out there. This is something that “young people” and social scientists are unlikely to get a grasp of without our help.

If Graeber wants to keep this movement going, it would be much better to make middle age sexy and invite as many working class people in to share what they know that they have learned after years of experience. Youth is wasted on the young.

******************************

When I think of OWS, this is what I see – here’s another video of protestors singing Do You Hear The People Sing in the rotunda of the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.  Yes, there are young people.  But they are not by any means the majority or the only ones with a grievance.

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