Faster Than the Speed of Light, Occupy Wall Street Defies the Natural Laws of Politics

By Michael Reagan
November, 2011

Month in Review • November 2011

Occupy has changed the country.  People are fighting back.  And the developments are happening faster than anyone could have guessed even a few months ago. The Occupy movement has gone from a few dozen in Zuccotti park in New York to thousands of participants in hundreds of cities.  Across the country occupations have become pitched battles between the people’s movement and municipal police forces. 

The speed with which this unfolded, the degree of brutality leveled against the occupiers, and the resilience of the Occupy movement are all remarkable.  In times like this the movement outstrips the best expectations of organizers and organizations.  And while these developments defy simple explanation, their impact is undeniable.  People are no longer talking about deficits and budget cuts, but about Wall Street and the one percent.  Americans have fully joined people the world over fighting against austerity and empire, making 2011 a year of global resistance for the history books.    

Computer model of a neutrino

Occupy has a parallel in the world of physics.  This month researchers working at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland and France have run two experiments in which neutrinos have been recorded apparently traveling faster than the speed light. Neutrinos, the subatomic misfits of the universe, known to pass through matter and inexplicably change form in travel, now also seem to move faster than light, something previously thought impossible. 

So it is with Occupy.  It has bypassed traditional forms of political mobilization, leaving more established organizations trying to play catch up. And the movement has changed form, from public occupations, to marches and rallies, civil disobedience and city-wide strikes – all faster than anyone would have expected.  Occupy, the misfit of the political world, is defying the laws of political possibility. 

But the forces opposed to Occupy are moving fast too. Occupiers have faced serious police repression around the country, with pepper spray attacks in Seattle and Davis, California, life-threatening injuries in Oakland, and in Seattle a miscarriage caused by police violence. The similarity of the timing and tactics of these attacks in cities as diverse as Portland and Denver has led to internet speculation that the police raids were coordinated at a federal level. Such speculation increased after Oakland Mayor Jean Quan told the BBC that the Department of Homeland Security had hosted conference calls with mayors to coordinate municipal response to Occupy.

Meanwhile, Wall Street’s agenda of austerity for the poor and attacks on the public sector has not yet been derailed. In Europe, the bankers and bondholders are remaking governments and economies in Greece and Italy. But gutting the public sector and democratic governments may not satisfy the IMF and German bankers, nor avoid collapse. The euro zone’s whole single-currency project is approaching a systemic meltdown that threatens to contaminate U.S. banks and to bring on a rerun of the 2008 crash, perhaps worse this time. 

In the diplomatic sphere Washington’s designs to occupy the globe have not changed either, despite significant setbacks. The Obama Administration is pushing an aggressive military posture in the Pacific, directed primarily at China. Moves include a major new military base in Australia, and strengthened ties with traditional Pacific Rim allies including a new free trade agreement with South Korea.

Efforts to establish an enduring U.S. presence in Afghanistan make it clear the Administration is not ready to abandon Central Asia anytime soon. In the Middle East, the United States and Israel’s covert efforts to topple the Iranian regime got a boost this month from a new IAEA report on the Iranian nuclear program. And the Obama administration continues to support forces it hopes it can control in countries touched by the Arab Spring.

“All day, all week – Occupy Wall Street”

The exponential growth of Occupy has pushed established organizations, particularly labor unions, in a positive direction. Although initially slow to appear, union support has been crucial in keeping Occupy alive. Unions like the SEIU have made considerable effort to quicken their organizing and direct action efforts. November 17thsaw a national day of action to support the New York OWS after a police raid.  That day, SEIU and union coalitions across the country staged demonstrations on bridges at rush hour, proclaiming “our bridges need work, and so do we.”

Activists outside the traditional union movement organized the nation’s first attempt at a general strike in 65 years in Oakland, California.  (IWW activists were instrumental in pushing the general strike in Oakland and in Madison earlier this year). But once the mobilizations for the November 2ndOakland general strike were underway, four local unions endorsed the strike. And it’s not only unions that have felt the push from Occupy. Traditional civil rights organizations like the NAACP, have responded to the call. NAACP chapters in New York City joined a variety of people of color’s labor organizations in an Occupy-inspired civil rights march.  

Ten Months of Spring

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, November 22, 2011. Photo: Shadi Rahimi

In Egypt, the country that has become the heart of the Arab Spring, demonstrators returned to the streets this week in the lead-up to national elections.  Egyptians were upset at the slow pace of change and continuation of military rule. The immediate spark was a proposed political arrangement floated by the military that would have excluded the military from civilian oversight and permitted their legal intervention in the Egyptian political process. As in the United States, police action to clear Tahrir square of demonstrators only brought more people into the streets, leading to dramatic confrontations. Egyptian police killed 40 people in the third week of November. (Click here and here for War Times’ Cairo correspondent Shadi Rahimi’s photo essays on the latest Tahrir Square demonstrations.) In the face of such lethal repression, Egyptians’ continued courage to mobilize in the streets to defend the January 25 Revolution is an inspiration to Occupiers worldwide.

The extremely complex electoral system devised by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s de facto ruler, means that the parliamentary elections begun on November 29 will not be concluded until sometime in January 2012. The mere holding of elections in a nation that began the year as one of the world’s most autocratic dictatorships is a victory of no small significance.  Yet as the recent wave of uprisings demonstrates, Egyptians are not satisfied.  Many view the elections as a means by which the  military may legitimize its rule, and through which established parties like the Muslim Brotherhood may gain further power. The revolutionary fervor is still strong in Egypt and portends good things for the region. 

Washington Still Occupied

After years of U.S. focus on the Middle East and Central Asia, the Obama Administration seems to have remembered it has competitors in other parts of the world. The President spent much of his time in November traveling the Pacific, trying to reassert U.S. domination there. The key focus is China, which the United States treats rhetorically as a growing military threat in the Pacific basin. China has begun to assert territorial claims in the South China Sea, and launched a new aircraft carrier, China’s first and only, a salvaged Soviet-era vessel in August of this year. Chinese military spending is the second highest in the world, but it’s dwarfed by U.S. expenditures, which are still six times greater than China’s.  

A more immediate threat to U.S. domination, however, is Chinese economic growth, especially when the U.S. economy is in such trouble. In the last three years China has gone on a major buying spree, seeking to acquire natural resources and manufacturing assets in Australia, Africa, and South America. Chinese foreign direct investment has more than tripled in the last six years, climbing to over $185 billion in 2010 according to the IMF. China’s strength in this realm can be seen in the current Euro Zone debt crisis, where EU ministers look to China to buy European bonds, and Chinese investors proclaim their interest in British and German markets. 

Libya has also been a site of Sino-American competition where Chinese projects before the civil war amounted to $18 billion. After the NATO invasion, Chinese trade with Libya dropped 50%, while U.S. and other western companies have rushed in. Recent U.S. military expansion in Africa should also be seen in light of its long-term competition with China. In the big picture, U.S. expansion in the Pacific, its planned base in Australia, renewed ties with the dictatorship in Burma, its actions in Libya and other parts of Africa, and efforts to negotiate a Trans-Pacific regional trade agreement, can all be understood as efforts to check Chinese ambitions. They also signal that competition with China is moving to the top of Obama’s imperial agenda, and that the U.S. empire will be trying to reassert its muscle after some serious missteps. 

Af/Pak

One site of consistent U.S. fumbling is Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The U.S. drone war in what planners call the “Af/Pak” conflict continues to inflame hatred of the United States.  News of civilians killed in NATO drone strikes, including a recent attack in which six children died, has become routine. Afghan president Hamid Karzai worked furiously this month to assemble a loya jirga to approve a continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, perhaps as far into the future as 2024. The jirga agreed to let the Americans stay, but only if the United States ends night raids, closes its prisons, and ends immunity for its soldiers accused of crimes. As is often the case with Karzai, his objectives in staging the jirga are a bit opaque; certainly the conditions proposed are unacceptable to the U.S. military.

Meanwhile the entire U.S.-Pakistani relationship has been further strained after a U.S. drone strike killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. Drone strikes inside Pakistan have precipitously increased under the Obama Administration. The Pakistani population is enraged at what they see as serious violations of Pakistani national sovereignty – the drone attacks that kill civilians along with their “legitimate” targets, as well as the assassination of Osama bin Laden earlier this year. 

Divisions within Pakistan make U.S.-Pakistani relations even murkier. The latest drone strike comes on the heels of a leaked memo which suggests that last May elements in the Pakistani civilian government sought U.S. intervention to curb the power of Pakistan’s military.  The memo, addressed to then Joint Chiefs Chair Admiral Mike Mullen, promised concessions if the U.S. were to help prevent a military coup after the death of bin Ladin.

These grievances have caused Islamabad to block NATO shipments through Pakistan which makes supplying troops in Afghanistan almost impossible. The U.S.-Pakistani relationship is as bad as it has ever been, and it continues to get worse.

Iran, Israel, and the IAEA

The other major front of U.S. imperial ambitions is Iran. After the U.S. failure in Iraq, the example of Iran, a major Middle East power operating independently of U.S. influence, is intolerable. The latest fracas regards the new IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program, (which Iran insists is for civilian use, although the United States wants to believe otherwise). The report alleges that Iran is working on a weapons program.  However, as Seymour Hersh points out in the New Yorker online, the report is “old news,” similar to the type of propaganda mobilized in the run up to the Iraq war. Hersh notes that in the report “hundreds of pages of material appears to come from a single source: a laptop computer, allegedly supplied to the I.A.E.A. by a Western intelligence agency, whose provenance could not be established.”  Furthermore, an unidentified Russian scientist cited by the IAEA report as a key contributor to the Iranian weapons program turns out to be a specialist in nano-diamonds with no background in nuclear technology.  (The new report follows a rather clumsy U.S. effort to implicate Iran in an assassination attempt on the Saudi ambassador, in a bizarre plot supposedly involving an Iranian immigrant in the U.S. and Mexican drug cartels.)  Nevertheless the US has used the IAEA report to slap new sanctions on Iran, calling its central bank a “threat,” and issuing sanctions that could restrict the international oil supply.  In response, Iran uncovered a series of CIA spy operations, the first in Lebanon was discovered by Hezbollah, and the second operating inside Iran itself. 

Israel, which is even more keen to attack Iran, announced for the first time this month that it would not consult with the U.S. before launching a strike.  Israel is in a tight spot. This summer it witnessed its own occupy movement, focused on the lack of economic prospects for young middle class Israelis, and highlighting the Netanyahu government’s domestic failures.  And Israel is facing isolation internationally. Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy and Obama have all been caught making what they thought were private comments expressing their personal dislike of Netanyahu. 

Meanwhile, grassroots activism continues to force the occupation issue on to the front burner.  Palestinians are waging weekly resistance demonstrations, and freedom riders by bus and by sea continue to challenge the most egregious aspects of the occupation.  The Palestinian Authority is pushing hard at the UN, and won a major victory at UNESCO, which voted to give the Palestinians full membership. The US and Israel retaliated immediately. The US cut its funding to UNESCO, representing 20% of the organization’s entire budget. Simultaneously Israel is withholding the taxes it collects for the Palestinian Authority, leading to major crisis in the West Bank. In Gaza, still choked by the blockade, Israel has resorted to outright bombings. 

Austerity and Bank Coups

Domestically, Washington remains focused on debt reduction, attacking the programs that support working-class people, while the economy slides further into disrepair. The failure of the Debt Commission to reach an agreement only means that Congress will now be scrambling to avoid the automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget, cuts that will supposedly activate in 2013. In the short term it is a victory of sorts, kicking the can down the road as Congress tries to figure out how to make the cuts that will be extremely unpopular.   

Austerity is also on the agenda in Europe, where the sovereign debt crisis threatens to collapse the entire European banking system, and perhaps spread to Asia and the Americas.  Already banks and investors are trying to limit their exposure and restrict lending in the Euro Zone.  Remarkably, mighty Germany had trouble selling state bonds at a recent auction.  Even more remarkable still, European countries have turned to the BRICs, the developing countries of the third world as a potential source of capital to extend to troubled member states. This shift, away from the United States and the European first world, toward the rising powers of China, Brazil and India, as a source of capital is significant.

Behind all of this are the European and U.S. banking sectors, forcing working people to delay retirement, sell off state assets, and trim their pensions, health care, and school budgets, while wringing governments of every penny they can possibly collect.  What’s true in Jefferson County, Alabama and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is true at a much larger scale in Greece and Italy. The European Central Bank virtually staged a coup, withholding Italian bond purchases to drive up rates, impose fiscal insecurity in Italy and force out Berlusconi to be replaced with their “technocrat” of choice, Mario Monti. Meanwhile, the financial contagion is spreading, with international liquidity drying up, and a major collapse looming on the horizon. 

Phase II – Occupy, faster than the speed of light

Things seem to be speeding up. The financial industry’s occupation of Washington, Berlin, London, and now Italy and Greece are expanding – demanding more and more from populations less able and willing to give.  And now Occupy, which has moved faster than the speed of political light, is looking for a way to survive the winter, and challenge directly the power wielded by state and private capital.  There are numerous proposals put forward for OWS, from warnings of co-optation, to pleas to “occupy strategy.” No matter what happens, we are entering a period of dramatic and quick changes in directions and at speeds previously thought impossible. It’s up to us to organize, learn, and push progressive change even faster still. We need to keep our heads up. Things are getting exciting, the horizon of the possible is expanding, and more laws of politics are waiting to be broken.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Michael Reagan is an organizer with the Seattle Solidarity Network andstudent at the University of Washington where he studies the history ofAmerican capitalism.

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