Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Point of the Occupy Movement

Occupy Protester: From the US, yet articulating a concern
that equally applies to Canada, where austerity measures
surely won't improve the youth unemployment rate.

Image Source: MMT Wiki
I've met a lot of people who wonder what the point of the Occupy Movement is, especially in Canada. I've even stumbled upon an article from Andrew Coyne stating the Occupy Movement is utterly pointless in Canada. If I have enough time, I plan on writing a post to refute some of the more wonkish points in his article*, but I'm still pretty busy so don't hold me to it.

What's really interesting about the variety of criticisms about the Occupy Movement being pointless is how they demonstrate the very point of the movement. The national conversation, in the United States and (too a lesser extent) in Canada was about how reckless spending had caused the crisis, how the government would have to make deep cuts to silly "over-indulgent" programs**, and how government deficit is the sole economic concern. Rightwing populists South of the Border were channeling anger at immigrants and blaming the poor duped into loans by supposed financial experts for the crisis through groups like the Tea Parties. After the Occupy Movement, people in the media started to recall that the crisis began and was caused by the recklessness of American and European banks and began to realize that unemployment and household deb are the pressing cancers crippling the real economy. Proper diagnosis of the problem is a prerequisite for a lasting solution to the problem.

And perhaps the best illustration of how the Occupy Movement is succeeding in shifting the national conversation rests in Coyne's own article.

Inequality is a legitimate concern in its own right, of course, quite apart from the costs of government.  
The gap that ought to trouble us is not between the top one per cent and the other 99 per cent, but between the bottom 10 per cent and the rest of us. Whatever harm may be imagined to arise from people being too rich, there is ample research on the harm that comes from being too poor, especially to children: poor, not only as a matter of absolute privation, but of relative inequality.
Even given that Coyne's attention to relative poverty within society is solely to deflect concern over the growth at the top, this is a promising note. Can you imagine a conservative writer for Maclean's declaring the importance of equity in the distribution of wealth before the Occupy Movement? There'd be little discussion of the matter in much of Canada's Corporate Press without the groundwork the Occupiers have laid. And for that, I thank them.

Regardless, not all of the Occupy movement ignores the distirbution of wealth within the bottom 99%, as this video from Occupy Toronto demonstrates.

 The distribution of income was never the sole concern for the protesters either. Adbusters, an early organizer of the Occupy WallStreet protest (which spawned the broad Occupy Movement) stated clear concerns early on:

This could be the beginning of a whole new social dynamic in America, a step beyond the Tea Party movement, where, instead of being caught helpless by the current power structure, we the people start getting what we want whether it be the dismantling of half the 1,000 military bases America has around the world to the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act or a three strikes and you're out law for corporate criminals. Beginning from one simple demand – a presidential commission to separate money from politics – we start setting the agenda for a new America.

Canada has prudent financial oversight, so the Glass-Steagall Act isn't as much of a deal. But the influence of corporate power over public policy is as much of a concern in Canada as it is in the US, even with a lower limit for campaign contributions (which the Conservatives have managed to get around anyway). Opposition from big banks in Canada was one of the key reasons why European-led plans for a global financial transactions tax failed and the Alberta Oil Sands industry remains a key player in obstructing environmental regulations.

As these issues persist, Occupy Canada remains relevant.


*Something that struck me when reading the article was how Coyne's, when arguing for the fairness of Canada's tax system with respect to the top 1%, focuses on income taxes, and not our (markedly less progressive) sales tax system.

**In a WTF??!! moment, US commentator Joe Scarborough compared medical programs people - particularly low-income people - depend on to chocolate cake. Which reminds me of a specific urban legend about Marie Antoinette.

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