What's up with #Occupy?

the protest

On Wednesday I had lunch with Steve and he was being more negative even than usual about #Occupy and how the whole thing is a waste of a good effort and opportunity and it’s not going to go anywhere, and then yesterday I was talking to Misael about it, and it went roughly like this:

“You guys have no leader, no specific demands. What are they supposed to do? All you’re doing is camping in a place where camping isn’t allowed.”
“It’s about raising awareness, getting people around the country to begin to take action.”
“What awareness? Everyone is aware of occupy, and with the exception of a small minority they’re strongly in support of it, and that support is being squandered and diffused by boredom because nothing is happening and there aren’t clear demands…”

Etcetera. Meanwhile, this was happening. The protesters regrouped and turned their attention directly to Wall Street, escalating the conflict with police. Meanwhile, John reports that actual Wall Street employees were more annoyed with the cops than the occupiers. Maybe.

It’s muy fabuloso that something is happening (which reminds me: are you following Josh Harkinson? because you should), but I wonder what the endgame here is, and I don’t think it’s premature to think about that. Movements die all the time, and fear that this movement will die out is far from the only reason to hope that it comes up with something, and soon. Direct action is great, and it may be essential. But the risk with what happened yesterday is that it will begin to alienate people at some point. “Those rabble rousers? I think things need to change, but I’m not down with them.” Remember the WTO protests in Seattle? They made a statement for sure, but somehow I don’t think that’s where you want this headed. A list of accomplishments for the day that leads with how many were arrested is a sign of trouble.

So, my article about where #Occupy is going and what Lawrence Lessig proposes in his book has over a thousand Facebook recommendations now, which is pretty awesome. But Lessig himself doesn’t seem to be engaging with Occupy. He’s got an op-ed in the Times in which he lays out the actual plan for “fixing congress” in about as much detail as he’s got in the book, and laying bare the crux of the problem (ok, ONE of the cruxicles):

Here’s just one way: almost every voter pays at least $50 in some form of federal taxes. So imagine a system that gave a rebate of that first $50 in the form of a “democracy voucher.” That voucher could then be given to any candidate for Congress who agreed to one simple condition: the only money that candidate would accept to finance his or her campaign would be either “democracy vouchers” or contributions from citizens capped at $100. No PAC money. No $2,500 checks. Small contributions only. And if the voter didn’t use the voucher? The money would pass to his or her party, or, if an independent, back to this public funding system.

Fifty dollars a voter is real money: more than $6 billion an election cycle. (The total raised in 2010: $1.86 billion.) It’s also my money, or your money, used to support the speech that we believe: this is not a public financing system that forces some to subsidize the speech of others. And because a campaign would have to raise its funds from the very many, it could weaken the power of the very few to demand costly kickbacks for their contributions — what the Cato Institute calls “corporate welfare,” like subsidies to ethanol manufacturers, or tariffs protecting the domestic sugar industry. Cato estimates that in 2009, the cost of such corporate welfare was $90 billion. If cutting the link to special interest funders could shrink that amount by just 10 percent, the investment would, across a two-year election cycle, pay for itself three times over.

Did you catch that? What are we going to cut the first time we need that $6 billion, before the corporate welfare money starts coming back, professor?

Now, I it’s not like I think this is a reason to abandon the ideas in the book. This is how academics work: you publish the idea you’ve got, and let others build on it and patch the holes in it. Edison’s light bulb was useless until other people came along and tweaked and refined it and built the electrical grid. And yet — there the problem sits, unadressed.

But back to #Occupy. What’s next? Well, they’re getting real good about building web toys, which is cool I guess. Meanwhile, the people behind The99PercentDeclaration sent me an email yesterday saying they’re about to run out of money, so I guess they’re not plugged into $500,000 that the OWS people have on hand. The message: for now the medium is the message. Here’s Eugene Robinson doing a pretty good job of spinning all this into something positive. For right now, that’s the best we’re going to get. But yeah, I’m afraid that it’ll be like Slavoj Žižek said:

The only thing I’m afraid of is that we will someday just go home and then we will meet once a year, drinking beer, and nostaligically remembering “What a nice time we had here.”

And BTW, since you people are not listening to my podcast, you should check out yesterday’s Slate Gabfest, which is absurdly smart on #Occupy.

Image above is from a CBS live stream, via a screengrab on The Atlantic Wire.

Posted: Friday November 18, 2011 by Alesh Houdek · · Comment feed for this post: RSS, atom



  1. squathole    Nov 19, 10:49 AM #  

    “…almost every voter pays at least $50 in some form of federal taxes.”

    Where did he get that statistic? Even assuming its accuracy, what does this mean in practical terms — that only voters are eligible for this “democracy voucher”? So it’s an incentive to vote, too? And now when people vote they request some kind of receipt from the poll worker to file with their tax returns, and the IRS issues, what, checks that have to be spent on campaigns? Anybody see any expensive bureaucracy here and opportunity for fraud on a massive basis?

    And this buys what — some asshat’s idiotic campaign literature and radio ads? The ones that when I see I throw away, and when I hear I shut off before exposure to them ruins my whole day? Is this fucking serious?

    Only a slippered academic with no grounding in practical reality would concoct such a hare-brained scheme. What an imbecile he is. I can’t believe responsible adults allow their vulnerable college-age children to be exposed to him.

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