Occupy Wall Street: The Politics of Subjectivity

Nicholas F. Palmer

Seven weeks ago, protesters gathered in Zucotti Park in Manhattan to fight against “the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations”. The movement has swelled since then, with as many as 15,000 people involved in an October 5th  demonstration, in addition to protests occurring in Madrid, Rome, and Berlin.


Not only has the movement grown in size, but also in support. In a poll conducted by ORC International, 36% of those sampled in late October (in a survey of 1,050) “agree with the overall positions of Occupy Wall Street, while 19% say they disagree.” This  percentage is up from  27 percent at the beginning of the month. Additionally, in an October 6th press conference, President Obama expressed his sympathy with the protesters’ frustrations: “The American people understand that not everybody is following the rules; that Wall Street is an example of that; that folks who are working hard every single day, getting up, going to the job, loyal to their companies, that used to be the essence of the American Dream… And these days, a lot of folks who are doing the right thing aren’t rewarded, and a lot of folks who aren’t doing the right thing are rewarded.”


Conservatives, however, have criticized the movement for going after the wrong set of institutions. At the October 18th GOP debate in Nevada, presidential hopeful Herman Cain criticized the protesters’ misplaced aggression: “They might be frustrated with Wall Street and the bankers, but they’re directing their anger at the wrong place. Wall Street didn’t put in failed economic policies. Wall Street didn’t spend a trillion dollars that didn’t do any good. Wall Street isn’t going around the country trying to sell another $450 billion. They ought to be over in front of the White House taking out their frustration.”


In a study published on August 31st, 2011, the Institute for Policy Studies determined that “The gap between CEO and average U.S. worker pay rose from 263-to-1 in 2009 to 325-to-1 [in 2010]… Among the nation’s top firms, the S&P 500, CEO pay last year averaged $10,762,304, up 27.8 percent over 2009. Average worker pay in 2010?  That [totaled]$33,121, up just 3.3 percent over the year before.” It would be difficult to explain this  problem of grossly increased executive pay and stagnant wages by only analyzing governmental impact, as the conservatives would.


But other than this tactical insight, what do the  Occupy Wall Street protests offer?  There are countless stories of lower- and middle-class people whose lives took a turn for the worse from the economic downturn of 2007. The reasons for their current situations are varied: college loan debt, medical expenses, and so on. And there is a solidarity that emerges from these common and relatable experiences. What is often heard from this solidarity are outcries against corporate greed and corrupt politicians. By putting their dissatisfaction in these terms, expanding income inequalities caused by brutal corporate practices are psychologized. But such an emphasis on the subjectivities of the people involved and impacted by these protests does not give due course to the “structural features” (institutions, norms, and rules, that frame a subject's behavior in a given context) of our current economic and political system that have placed Americans in the situation they find themselves in. The inability to recognize and criticize such structural features fails to produce an alternative economic and political logic to reproduce the conditions of American society.


For example, if there is one thing capitalism may be complimented on, it is its ability to put people to work. As the 19th century economist Karl Marx defines, capital is an investment into raw materials and labor power to produce commodities, the sale of which ideally produces a greater yield than what the capitalist began with (Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. 1. ). So when Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) refers to capitalists as ”job creators,” this blackmail for trickle-down economic policies contains an element of truth. Any alternative to capitalism must then describe how individuals without access to capital are to produce their livelihoods. For if the capitalist will no longer be creating jobs, who or what will?


Since the recession started, many of those who  lived in poverty or were members of the middle class were kicked out of their jobs and homes. And yet, those at the top are insulated to a considerable extent from this economic volatility, from tax breaks and loopholes to full government bailouts. The protesters are right to be appalled over this socialism for the wealthy and gradual loss of the American dream. To reference Marx again, “The worker need not necessarily gain when the capitalist does, but he necessarily loses when the latter loses.” But the notion that replacing the corrupted persons with the virtuous will somehow restore the purity of American capitalism only obscures the larger issues the Occupy Wall Street movement must confront.

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David Shankbone, Flickr
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