Three things about Occupy, two short, one long.
1) Occupy is already a success if the model is to provoke reaction from its chief targets. It’s hard to imagine pundits passing up the chance to comment on anything: the 24/7 news cycle is a harsh taskmaster. Nevertheless, the number of surly, whiny or malicious commentaries as well as the dropping of any pretense of an ethos of objectivity from some reporters has been pretty striking. What’s more interesting is the extent to which active responses (as in Oakland) or threatened responses (as in New York City) from the powers-that-be have taken place. I honestly expected municipal and other authorities to just patronize and wait it out. I think there may be real anxiety inside the crony-capitalist/Washington nexus about the possible spread of mass protest or public discontent.
2) I’d continue to argue that there is a sociological limit in the current iteration of Occupy that mirrors similar limits in progressive electoral politics, and that this is where the reaction of Tea Party representatives has been instructive: they don’t want to explore the obvious connections and real overlaps between some of their rejection of the status quo and Occupy because they don’t like the sociological habitus of the people involved (a sentiment shared very much vice-versa). However, the single least interesting, least useful criticism of Occupy in circulation is that it lacks a concrete set of demands, that it needs some kind of concrete policy platform that politicians could adopt. This misses the point in every way possible. First, that Occupy’s critique can’t be boiled down into something like “Pass a new version of Glass-Steagall”, that the real issue is “Why did we get rid of sensible governance and guardianship of that type in the first place, and why can’t we have it back now?” You can’t solve our current situation with the passage of some laws if the institutions charged with implementing them will subvert, ignore or supercede those laws. You can’t solve our current situation if the next regulation you create will promptly be evaded or mocked by those it was intended to regulate. (Bank of America’s debit-use charge, I’m looking at you.) It’s the system that’s broken: you don’t solve systemic failure with a five-point legislative plan. Demands in this context have to be something more like, “Unelect everyone and comprehensively reform the process of electing a new group of representatives and leaders, expect accountability in both economic and political life and set real consequences for the failure of that expectation, make transparency in both business and government one of the sacred watchwords of a democratic society”. Maybe Occupy needs more of a boiled-down, two-sentence root-level philosophy or viewpoint (parity with something like “down with big government”) but it doesn’t need a set of demands that the political-financial complex can promptly ignore or play pointless legislative shell games with.
3) I think Matt Taibbi provides as good a “root-level philosophy” as you can ask for: that Occupy is not against wealth, is not against competition, is not against business, is not against banking. It’s a very specific argument that the game as it stands is rigged, that the cheaters are being allowed to operate with impunity, that the safeguards against cheating are compromised, and that the cheats are running the risk of destroying the game itself.
As my readers and colleagues know, I’m hopelessly addicted to analogies and metaphors. Here let me try an analogy that I don’t think is particularly metaphorical, that is in fact quite directly applicable to this situation: the history of the computer game Diablo II.
The game was a huge commercial successes and initially supported a large, thriving and heterogenous multiplayer community where the range of participation went from casual players who played few other games (online or otherwise) to dedicated, hardcore players with long experience in a variety of gaming genres and forms.
Diablo II allowed players to trade magical items obtained through play, as well as to compete with one another in various ways. It was consequently one of the first multiplayer games to generate an unplanned real-money transaction (RMT) market, as players offered desirable items to other players in return for cash payments through various third-party venues. This being a fairly new kind of thing at the time, neither the player community nor the game’s producer really anticipated what would follow. Initially, crucial data about characters was kept client-side, and so was relatively easy to hack. At first, only a small number of players used cheats in order to gain an edge in RMT transactions. At that point, the game’s multiplayer ecosystem was still relatively healthy: a large number of customers, a small number of cheaters. Arguably the cheaters may even have helped a bit by introducing highly desirable duplicates of items at a faster rate into the multiplayer economy. In short order, however, the ease of cheating, created mostly by a lack of governance and control over the playing environment on the part of the game producer, devastated the multiplayer community. Items lost all value as they were illicitly duplicated in massive quantities, and any sense of genuine competition between players evaporated as cheats proliferated. In the end, the cheaters were left to prey on each other, an activity which defines “diminishing returns”.
In the end, open cheating, or cheating which proliferates in the absence of governance and enforcement, is not even in the interests of the cheaters. But once a socioeconomic system moves headlong in that direction, its acceleration towards generalized disaster can be exponential. Cheaters themselves cannot be expected to stop that movement even if they understand that it’s not in their own interests, because they’ve specialized their economic activity to take advantage of cheats. The biggest hackers of Diablo II when it was at the tipping point probably couldn’t have played the game even marginally well if denied access to their hacks: the game had become about hacking at that point, and about the incomes they could obtain from doing so. When the prey left and the cheats become more difficult, the cheaters just went looking for some other racket. A parasite at some point can become too specialized in its reliance on a complex vector and on the ecology of a particular host: if through its own efficient depredation or in concert with other stresses, it kills too many hosts, the parasite can’t undo its evolution. At some point in the 1990s, a fraction of financial capitalism became so dependent upon subverting or unraveling safeguards and so expectant of a level of profit obtained through government-protected market manipulation that it became effectively unable to back off and seek some more stable equilibrium–and its political partners became the same. The idea that Goldman-Sachs in the last decade represents “the free market” is as laughable as saying that the 19th railroad industry in the US was a laissez-faire triumph: in both cases, plutocracy was secured through and within the state rather than in the absence of it.
Stopping that isn’t a matter of a policy here or a single bugfix there. It’s about a comprehensive change to the paradigm. It’s about the government of the people, by the people, for the people, not perishing from this earth.