Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 30, 2011

The Nuts and Bolts of #OccupyWallStreet

Filed under: anti-capitalism,financial crisis,Pham Binh — louisproyect @ 3:04 pm


The Nuts and Bolts of #OccupyWallStreet
By Pham Binh
September 29, 2011 | Posted in IndyBlog | Email this article

On day 12 of Occupy Wall Street (OWS), I helped moderate a meeting of the “open source” OWS working group by keeping a list of speakers and co-chairing. I am not sure what the open source group is supposed to do exactly, but I decided to attend this meeting after watching a middle-aged man call in the General Assembly for developing demands and goals on the OWS live feed and people in the crowd telling him the open source working group was tasked with this.

After the daily 1 p.m. General Assembly meeting ended, OWS divided into its working groups, including media, labor, outreach, and a number of others. I walked over and sat down next to the point person (or “ leader”) of the working group, a young white guy in his twenties who looked like a 60s throwback with his long, straight hippy-style hair, rainbow tights, fatigue shirt, and Ziploc bag of rolling papers. Of course, you can never judge a book by its cover — he is also a student of behavioral economics and mentioned that academic studies have shown that the OWS’s decentralized, highly participatory, and lengthy process of dialogue is the best way to organize.

The open source meeting swelled very quickly to 20 or 30 people, an indication that a lot of people want to figure out what OWS’s demands should be. The group moderator remarked that the group was so big it was practically a “second General Assembly.” His brief introduction to the process whereby OWS would define its vision (he repeatedly used the phrase “visioning”) was interrupted as many hands went up, asking to be called on; at least 10 people wanted to speak and each was allowed a minute and a half.

What emerged from the discussion was that there is no consensus that demands are even necessary. Quite a few protesters argued along the lines that this is movement or process of dialogue is the demand/goal and that therefore demands are not necessary; one said our demand to the world should that they “join us.” Two older people, one in his sixties, the other in his thirties, spoke out for having clear, specific demands as being a very necessary step to creating a sustainable protest, much less a movement.

I argued that a few concrete, achievable demands were important, citing the “Day of Wrath” protest on January 25, 2011 that began the revolution in Egypt that demanded raising the minimum wage, an end to the dictatorship’s “emergency laws,” the firing of the interior minister, and a two term presidency. I explained that Mubarak’s ouster was not one of their original demands, but it became a demand once millions of people became involved in the movement, and therefore demands can and should change depending on circumstances. My suggested demand was to raise taxes on the 1%, something the New York state legislature and the city council could vote to do immediately.

One woman argued against having demands on the grounds that the media wanted us to do exactly that, that it would be a way for them to put us in a nice neat little confining box the better to ignore us; instead, she proposed we copy the model used to write grant proposals and draw up a mission statement, goals, and objectives. The moderator took to this and we dispersed into six groups of five or so to discuss what motivated us to protest and what our “visions” (or goals, long and short term) were; after the break out, we would reconvene to sum up and share what each of our groups had come up with in the hopes of finding some type of consensus that would inform some sort of statement to the world.

The OWS political process is very participatory, cumbersome, and time-consuming. One strength of their process is that it avoids the top-down control that Wisconsin’s union leaders exercised to scuttle the protests and developing strike wave that shook the state in favor of harmless (and ultimately fruitless) recall efforts.

To participate and help shape OWS politically requires dedicating many, many waking hours every day to ongoing, continuous debates and discussions. This is not necessarily a bad thing but in practice ends up favoring the participation of those who can afford to skip work and/or school for a week or more. With unemployment over 9% (a figure even higher for the 18-25 age group), it should be no surprise that these are the people taking the fight to the enemy’s lair.

It may be that OWS never develops a clear set of demands. OWS seems to be headed toward issuing a general statement akin to the Port Huron Statement by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962, although it will probably be less wordy and much darker. Port Huron spoke moralistically of the highly privileged lives led by America’s post-World War Two college students that stood in start contrast to the conditions facing black and brown people in the Jim Crow south, America’s urban ghettos, and the Third World. Today, students face the prospect of lifelong debt, serial dead-end jobs, and holding two or even three part-time jobs just to keep up with the bills and rent, just like the non-college educated working class.

Whatever OWS decides with regards to demands, they deserve credit for putting their finger on the real enemy and being brave enough to defy the police and break the law to make the voices of their generation heard.

Everyone who can should go and help occupy Wall Street.

Pham Binh’s articles have been published by Asia Times Online, Znet, Counterpunch, and International Socialist Review. His other writings can be found at www.planetanarchy.net


  1. Hell yea Binh! Glad you could participate. Nothing more refreshing than to hear an account of bottom up democracy being made on the fly.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — September 30, 2011 @ 7:12 pm

  2. Karl, check out The Indypendent link Louis posted. I reposted a comment there from a South Asian filmmaker who had a major problem with the General Assembly process.

    Comment by Binh — September 30, 2011 @ 7:25 pm

  3. The essential demand must be to implement the specific measures of new legislation, in addition to vigorous law enforcement, to bring about what Elizabeth Warren had recommended (quote):

    In an interview at Newsweek, December 7, 2009, titled “Reining in, and Reigning Over, Wall Street” Elizabeth Warren was asked: “Congress is trying to reform financial regulation, and it can get a little abstract. Where should people focus?”

    She responded: “To restore some basic sanity to the financial system, we need two central changes: fix broken consumer-credit markets and end guarantees for the big players that threaten our entire economic system. If we get those two key parts right, we can still dial the rest of the regulation up and down as needed. But if we don’t get those two right, I think the game is over. I hate to sound alarmist, but that’s how I feel about this.” (end quote)

    One could boil this demand into this:

    –> Repeal the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (on November 12, 1999).

    –> And/or: restore the Glass-Steagall Act to 1933 to it’s pre-1999 completeness.

    Why? the Glass-Steagall Act came out of the Pecora Commission (congressional) of 1932-1934, which investigated the causes of the 1929 crash. This commission developed legislation to reform and regulate the banking and finance industry. The Glass-Steagall Act segmented banking into commercial or (not “and”) investment banks.

    Commercial banks make credit available for consumers (individuals, small businesses, even some big businesses), investment banks play the markets (stocks, currency, venture enterprises a.k.a. “start ups”, and today’s arcane forms of computer-game gambling, e.g., “derivatives”, “hedge funds”).

    The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), insures bank deposits in commercial banks only (up to $250,000 today). The FDIC was also created by Pecora spawned law in 1933.

    ALL of this can be summarize by “repeal Gramm-Leach-Bliley.”

    The GLB Act is named for it three Republican authors/sponsors, and was signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton.

    One can add a bit to the basic demand with:

    –> Have the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (Elizabeth Warren’s idea, to which she was not appointed head by Obama) act vigorously.

    Also, to regulate speculative markets (derivatives, etc.) and effortlessly recapture public wealth wasted on bank bailouts (and not recycled into consumer credit, and thus job creation):

    –> Enact a financial transaction tax.

    For every “trade” so easily initial by a few keystrokes, add a XX% federal tax, exactly like any sales tax. Just such a tax was proposed last week by Mr. Barroso, president of the European Union (quote):

    The president argued that the public sector had contributed more than €4,000bn in guarantees to the banking sector to support it through the crisis, and that it was now time for the industry to repay its debt.
    “It’s a question of fairness,” Mr Barroso said. “It is time for the financial sector to make a contribution back to society.” (end quote, from a Financial Times article I can no longer access — without “signing up”).


    –> Repeal the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

    –> Vigorous prosecutions by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

    –> Enact a financial transaction tax.

    Occupy Wall Street brings welcome public attention to the issue, but there will NEVER be a voluntary reform by the financial industry prompted by moral force. Look at how slavery was abolished. Legislation (segmenting), enforcing existing laws and regulations (CFPB), and finance transaction taxes are required (un-TARPing). That means change originates in Washington D.C., and for THAT to occur it may also be necessary to have campaign finance reform in parallel, or even preceding.

    A forth demand that could be added to our list would be:

    –> Overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

    That is, have congress pass legislation that overturns the Supreme Court God-the-Father-act-of-creation of bestowing “personhood” to corporations, thus allowing them the 1st Amendment right to spend to their heart’s content on “political free speech”, that is to say “campaign contributions”, or just simply: payoffs.

    Legislate, enforce, tax, objectify.


    The following video elaborates on some of this. An excellent Keiser Report on “bankers rule the world”, and the current depression (which is being managed “worse” than last time). All three commentators (Herbert, Keiser, Prins) in this video are quite good; Nomi Prins (former Goldman Sachs manager), in the second half, is excellent.

    Comment by Manuel Garcia, Jr. — September 30, 2011 @ 8:27 pm

  4. I hate auto-correct:

    –> Repeal the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act (of November 12, 1999).

    –> And/or: restore the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 to it’s pre-1999 completeness.

    The GLB Act is named for its three Republican authors/sponsors, and was signed into law by Democrat Bill Clinton.

    Comment by Manuel Garcia, Jr. — September 30, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

  5. It is not my place to make specific suggestions about demands, given my lack of participation, but I will make one general observation. Reformism should be eschewed in favor of immediate measures to relieve the suffering of millions of people in this country, and, for that matter, around the world, as in Greece and much of the lesser developed world. Here in Sacramento, 1 out of 4 people are relying upon some form of assistance from the county.

    Comment by Richard Estes — September 30, 2011 @ 8:42 pm

  6. Pardon my old brain:

    For every “trade” so easily initiated…

    Comment by Manuel Garcia, Jr. — September 30, 2011 @ 8:44 pm

  7. Good stuff here:


    which led someone to post a link to this gem:

    by Jo Freeman aka Joreen


    Comment by Todd — September 30, 2011 @ 10:13 pm

  8. #2. Dear Binh. Crucial points you’ve raised to be sure. That’s why it’s absolutely vital that clear historical thinking stalwarts like you are there, amidt it all, keeping accurate accounts amidst the fervor, akin to the journals of Jack Reed in “10 Days That Shook The World”.

    I implicitly trust your judgement. Keep up the great work! If I weren’t shackled to this ball & chain in AZ I’d be in route today and I’m working on a plan right now on how to “heft an axe” like in “Cool Hand Luke” to bust them chains and get the 2500 miles to join you while leaving a pile of black pepper to fool the hounds on my ass but there’s no gaurantee I won’t wind up back on the chain gang before I get there. It’s not so easy to bust out of capitalism’s jail.

    In Solidarity,

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 1, 2011 @ 2:37 am

  9. While Doug Henwood’s blog rightly points out that: “Neoliberalism couldn’t ask for a less threatening kind of dissent” the beauty of the age of the internet is that any anti-wall street movement in the aftermath of such unprecendented transference of wealth from the bottom to the top has the potential to grow into something that’s much more than the sum of its parts.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 1, 2011 @ 2:52 am

  10. Richard, what do you mean by “reformism” and how does it differ from immediate relief?

    Thanks Karl. I will continually revise judgement in light of experience. Already I got a little lesson in demands vs. goals (something I may write about soon) from some of the people I was in the meeting with. Maybe you can find fellow occupiers out in AZ: http://www.occupytogether.org/

    Comment by Binh — October 1, 2011 @ 6:47 am

  11. Last night on Countdown Davis Shuster interviewed an #OWS organizer who said committees have agreed on a list of demands and one of the most important ones was to immediately end the wars, which is huge, along with putting people’s needs before coroprate profits. With the transit workers joining in yesterday plus SEIU and the UAW rumored to follow this movement is getting more significant by the hour and has enormous potential to actually change the world.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 1, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

  12. Binh: I was referring to ideas posted in comments above mine about returning to the days of Glass-Steagal and that sort of thing.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 1, 2011 @ 2:20 pm

  13. Richard, you don’t think bringing back Glass-Steagall would be a step forward given our current context? Is breaking up huge banks into smaller banks, thereby reducing the likelihood of bailouts, any more reformist than winning greater unemployment benefits, higher food stamp benefits, and the like? I’m not sure I understand why you object to things that Manuel put forward. Is it because it doesn’t immediately alleviate suffering?

    Comment by Binh — October 1, 2011 @ 4:25 pm

  14. I’d like to start off by saying thank you Binh for the inside scoop and your reporting is the next best thing to being there.

    I agree with your conclusion that the group needs a concrete set of achievable demands.

    What they are doing is wonderful because I for the longest time have called for people in America to get up and say that conditions here have to change and anarchy in large numbers is a powerful weapon that can achieve it.

    In Egypt, they had clear demands and were mostly on the same page.

    Now that the Wall Street protesters have grabbed America’s attention,
    in order to sustain their momentum they will need to have a clear vision of their mission which should include what they think is wrong, appealing to the powers that be about their demands and ideas on correcting it and not backing down until the wrongs have been righted.

    If they don’t take that approach, I’m afraid they’ll run out of gas and burn out as Americans will just stop paying attention and move on to the next big media story.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — October 1, 2011 @ 8:02 pm

  15. Binh: yes, that’s it

    Glass-Steagall would address what created the crisis, to an extent, but wouldn’t deal with the ongoing consequences of it.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 2, 2011 @ 12:53 am

  16. I hear you Richard. I was pushing tax the rich because the state legislature can raise NYC’s income tax on the 1%, as they have in the past: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/nyregion/29tax.html

    This would 1) give us local targets (politicians) to go after 2) help fix these crushing deficits that are leading to draconian cuts. Restoring the state’s tax on millionaires (Democratic Cuomo recently helped repeal it) I think would make an appreciable difference in the lives of workers and the poor and reverse the four decade Reaganist trend in tax policy. What do you think of this?

    The other demand I wanted to suggest was fire Bologna, but I didn’t get to that point with only one and a half minutes to speak. I cut myself off and called on the next person.

    Comment by Binh — October 2, 2011 @ 1:11 am

  17. @#16
    The fundamental economic problem today is the same as during the Great Depression: jobs. A return to Glass-Steagall would create a sound commercial banking system, which could only lend for popular (as opposed to elite or insider) economic growth (personal loans, loans for: cars, homes, business expansion a.k.a. “construction”), and this would mushroom jobs locally (not offshore). Since banking is the business of making money by selling credit, commercial banks restricted from speculating (in stock markets, etc.) would return to traditional arenas of lending, they’d have no other choice since just sitting on their reserves would not generate income. Commercial bank income, including any government “bail outs” if such were give, recycled into loans as described, fueling job creation, would be seen as an acceptable form of relief by the entire political spectrum. When the government bypasses the banks and put relief checks directly into the hands of people (negative taxes), even if in the form of “pay” for “public jobs” the recipients engage in, it is seen as “welfare” in the most parasitic sense. So, for most American to see government sponsored/initiated job creation as “real” the government has to launder its money through a (sound) commercial banking system. Job creation could be just as immediate either way. But, it is necessary to have a Glass-Steagall regulated commercial banking system in place.

    As one — admittedly quite imperfect — indicator of national economic strength, consider this about the DJIA. The value of the stock market (NYSE) as measured by the Dow Jones Industrial Average increased by a factor of 3 between 1994 and the end of 1999 (5 years), with commercial banking regulated by Glass-Steagall. Repeal of Glass-Steagall was signed into law on 12 November 1999. The market today is about 5% to 10% below its level of January 2000 (the Clinton bull market high), 11 and 3/4 years ago. During that interval we experienced some market ups and downs post 9-11, a historic peak in October 2007 (the housing bubble) at 20% above the January 2000 level, the crash of October 2008, and the dribbling since then. The many “gifts” from the Federal Reserve to the “big banks” a.k.a. investment banks and the TARP money (up to $700B allowed by the law) they received has not recycled into “commercial banking” but been held in readiness for continued speculating, “investment banking” (since there is no Glass-Steagall restriction), and of course bonuses. I have suggested before that the USG could have just cut each of 300,000,000 Americans a $2300 tax-free check (total equals TARP hit) and we’d certainly stimulate the economy and create jobs. But, of course, this is odious “welfare”. It would be aromatic and orthodox if instead one were getting a fair interest loan from a neighborhood bank to put a toolbox in your pickup truck and start an handyman business. Reinstating Glass-Steagall would cut through all the disingenuous Republican bullshit about “government handouts” and “socialism” as regards any Keynesian kick to the economy to generate jobs. And it could be done quick, as quick ans any direct welfare — if we had a sound and “firewalled’ commercial banking system (which could be done immediately once the law was enacted).

    Comment by Manuel Garcia, Jr. — October 2, 2011 @ 1:50 am

  18. Its far beyond bringing back Glass-Steagall or regulation of derivatives trading. We are at the stage where demands for a decent life cannot be met under capitalism and at a basic level many people know this.

    Demands can be
    Fire Bologna
    End Bank of America’s $5 ATM fee
    Restore NY and US tax cuts for the wealthy
    Close down derivatives trading
    Place the banks under public ownership

    The first three are certainly achievable and can have “traction”. The others are important goals which can easily gain public acceptance and can encourage people to think of alternatives. No to TINA.

    Comment by leninarosenweg — October 2, 2011 @ 1:51 am

  19. Richard, really one in fovr on assistance?

    Wow that’s a real shame. In my state of CT unemployment is high and when it runs out you basically have to be very sick to qualify for assistance.

    That’s why many unemployed in my county live out of their cars in an area that’s well known for its affluence. It’s disgraceful.

    I also agree with Binh on taxing the rich both federally and by state.

    My governor Dannel Malloy raised taxes on goods and services
    and payroll which has been devastating to the working poor which he said was unavoidable due to the state deficit.

    Though I agree with him that increasing taxes was the only way to close the budget gap, in a state like Connectictut with a large number of millionaires and some billionaires, he should’ve raised taxes on them and not make it even harder for the working poor.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — October 2, 2011 @ 3:08 am

  20. A modest proposal. I suggest #OccupyWallStreet should copy and paste (with small alterations) the ten points Black Panthers demands.

    Comment by Evildoer — October 2, 2011 @ 12:30 pm

  21. Modifying the 10 demands of the BPP is a great start because they not only insisted on ridding state forces of fascist pigs like Tony Baloney but advocated an immediate end to the wars ($2 billion in taxes each week we piss away to enrich the 1% and occupy brown people’s lands) plus demanded Free Heatlh Care for all. Young people of course tend to think they’ll live forever so health care isn’t that big an issue to them but it really is for me and 50 million others insofar as Obama’s plan was a fraud that actually strengthened the hand of the insurance companies and pharmaceutical giants.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — October 2, 2011 @ 2:19 pm

  22. You’re right Karl. Obama’s plan was supposed to give more people access to care.

    All it resulted in was insurance companies jacking up their rates to make up for the mandates which will result in less access to care because of the high cost.

    The plan just created a bigger problem.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — October 2, 2011 @ 5:01 pm

  23. Binh: I have been trying to stay out of making specific proposals, because I’m not there. But here are two along the lines of what I have been emphasizing in terms of immediate help for people:

    (1) an emergency nationalization of the unemployment insurance program, with the federal government providing for 60% wage replacement (few states provide more than 20%), up to a maximum of $50,000 a year, combined with the reinstatement of everyone who has received UI since July 1, 2007;

    (2) an immediate moritorium on home foreclosures, pending the implementation of federal refinancing program that would require banks to take the loss on homes purchased since January 1, 2006

    keeps unemployed families afloat, keeps people facing foreclosure in their homes and keeps their communities alive

    Just my two cents out here in the bleachers.

    Comment by Richard Estes — October 3, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  24. Those are very good suggestions that I support Richard.

    Comment by Deborah Jeffries — October 3, 2011 @ 9:48 pm

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