America’s autumn of discontent

There was a time in the early ’80s when, having lived through a decade of authoritarian rule, Filipinos began to accept the possibility of remaining under the Marcos dictatorship for a long time. Many liked the sense of security that a controlled environment offered. Others who understood the system and felt violated by it fled abroad or went underground. Those who, for a variety of reasons, chose to stay yet opposed the system waged a struggle not only against the dictatorship but also against pessimism and helplessness.

In 1983, the brazen assassination of Ninoy Aquino rekindled the fire that freedom-loving Filipinos thought they had lost.  Ninoy’s funeral gave them the opportunity to come together and quietly manifest their outrage. They drew courage from each other’s presence, not quite knowing where their anger would take them, or how it would end. But, there was no doubt in their minds that from that day on, they were no longer isolated individuals deterred by fear but citizens of a nation creating its own destiny.  This is how Edsa people power was born.

In the beginning there was neither a unified command nor a coherent vision that could pull the diverse elements together to form a stable and enduring protest organization. Social movements were something new. The language of party formations defined the horizon of revolutionary politics.  The sudden explosion of popular zeal energized the Left and what remained of the political parties, and their first instinct was to appropriate this amorphous force and give it an agenda before it fizzled out. They could not. Movements have their own reason for being, and the best way to disable them is to instrumentalize them by harnessing their power to an existing program of action.

Their strength precisely lies in their open-endedness, in their ability to invent new models of action, in their capacity for self-reflection.  Their audacity rests in the knowledge that they have nothing to lose, and no momentum to sustain. If interest wanes, someone else is bound to come up with something different at the right moment. That is why movements are seldom grim, they are usually festive, and the people who join them have a lot of fun fighting the enemy.

These thoughts have come rushing back to me as I ponder the novel series of protest actions that have rocked the United States for a month now. Collectively referred to as the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, these marches and sit-ins lay the blame for America’s economic woes on the government’s abdication of its regulatory responsibilities to Wall Street’s FIRE—in Michael Hudson’s words, the bosses of Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. These highly paid moguls, says the movement, have destroyed America because of their greed.  They took advantage of the growth-inducing deregulation programs that were put in place in the 1980s, maneuvering through the loopholes to create new ways of making money, and preying upon the unexamined needs and consumerist instincts of the average American.  When these robbers in pinstripe suits found themselves in trouble, it was the government itself that bailed them out, arguing that to allow them to fail would spell a bigger systemic disaster.

In contrast, the government stood by almost passively as ordinary Americans saw their lifetime savings evaporate before their eyes at the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. Many lost their homes because even as their take-home pay stagnated, their mortgage payments rose beyond imagination. Unable to comprehend the workings of a financial system that seemed to have a life of its own, they were made to think they had only themselves to blame for their misfortunes. Now they’re learning there is another side to that story that has to be told. Clearly, the movement has tapped into a vast reservoir of public discontent and resentment that has been searching for a narrative.  More important, Wall Street’s warriors are making Americans think that their country has to undergo a fundamental structural shift if it is to get out of the rut.

As expected, “Occupy Wall Street” is being criticized for having no clear purpose and for offering no plausible solutions to the problems and policies it is attacking. But, if that is a weakness, how come the movement is growing and spreading globally? America’s political and economic elites were initially dismissive of the movement’s prospects. But, seeing how it was producing echoes everywhere, they began to mock it. Now they’re desperately trying to engage it on issues in such a way that the debate is technocratized and effectively taken out of the realm of public discourse.

But, at the level of the average American, the questions are quite simple. First, what led to this crisis and who should be held accountable? Second, what is to be done, and is the government doing enough to arrest the worsening unemployment and the looming inflation that is expected with the rapid loss in value of the US dollar?  As the debate unfolds, Americans find themselves going through different levels of self-examination. I’m in the United States as I write this, learning immensely from long conversations with Filipinos who came to this country to partake of the American dream.

My hunch is that the American dream began to fail when the US political system became so mesmerized by the financial system’s limitless capacity to create wealth that it felt unworthy to restrain it. Washington had foolishly allowed itself to be annexed by Wall Street. Now, Americans want their government back.