There’s a moment in the movie “Woodstock” that always bugged me: at one point, counter-culture jester Wavy Gravy appeals to the crowd from the stage, explaining that a “hamburger guy” had his hamburger stand burned down the night before, and says, “for those people who still believe that, you know, capitalism isn’t that weird, you might help him out and buy a couple hamburgers.” It bothered me because A) if they burned down his hamburger stand last night, then buying hamburgers from the guy now, while charitable, sounds like a recipe for food poisoning; but more bothersome yet, B) it’s a prime example of the kinds of common definitions of capitalism that are so broad as to be meaningless. I mean, if the guy owns the stand and cooks and sells the burgers himself, then the only thing capitalist about the venture is that it’s privately owned. But capitalism is more than private property: it implies a system in which those with the capital call the shots, and exploit the labor of those who do not own the capital. And, damn it, Wavy Gravy ought to know that.
Private property and the buying and selling of goods existed long before there was modern capitalism. And most people who complain about capitalism – everyone from popes to anarchist street protesters – are prepared neither to share everything in common nor to let the state control all property. Some, it is true, will point to private property itself as the root of economic injustice. And I do believe we need to temper our concept of the right to property to include concepts such as stewardship and the common good. Everything we think we own is ultimately borrowed (you can’t take it with you), and the right to own things comes with the responsibility to utilize our belongings with due regard for our neighbors, our descendants, our planet, etc. But the idea that individual persons have rights, that work has dignity, and that people ought to enjoy the fruits of their own labor is one I think most people could agree to. So, if the hippies at Woodstock couldn’t see the difference between a guy making and selling food from a cart at a music festival and, say, the owners of McDonald’s, then their revolution seemed helplessly unrealistic. Altamont, disco, Ronald Reagan, and Gordon Gekko were sure to follow.
Now, in the age of the internet I’ve been able to read up, and apparently the burger guy was taking advantage of his captive audience and quadrupling prices, so that’s pretty capitalistic and was probably bound to provoke the ire of a herd of hungry hippies. But each of the forty or so times I watched the movie in high school, Mr. Gravy’s quip, inasmuch as I found it indicative of a general lack of proper Marxian formation, presented me with what could only be called a bummer, man.
I bring all this up because, in addition to Woostock, I’ve had two other historic gatherings of groovy people on my mind lately. First, the Water War that took place in Cochabamba, Bolivia in 2000, and second, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protest and burgeoning “99%” movement currently making waves in lower Manhattan and elsewhere around the United States.
The people of Cochabamba rose up against the privatization of their public waterworks, and successfully forced their government to overturn a new, market-based water law, and to nullify the contract that had granted the city’s water concession to a private international consortium led by the California-based Bechtel Corporation. It was a great victory of people power, but in the 11 years that followed, the once-again publicly owned water company has accomplished close to zilch. The infrastructure is crumbling, water service is intermittent at best, supposedly potable water is plagued with contamination, and most of the southern half of the city, where the poorest communities reside, is without city water, leaving residents to buy from privately (but locally) -owned cistern trucks at exorbitant prices.
At the time of the Water War protests, the most visible leader of the people’s movement was a union leader named Oscar Olivera. Many expected him to seek a leadership position in the water company once it was returned to public control. But he declined, saying he knew how to make shoes, and to organize people to make their demands heard – he knew nothing about managing a water company. Apparently, nobody else in Cochabamba did, either. Or else they were kept from doing so by the corrupt politicians and politically connected technocrats whose failures had led international financial institutions to push Bolivia to privatize the system in the first place. Still, though, the protests themselves represented a significant victory for people power and an important strike against corporate-led, market-driven global economic reforms imposed by wealthy, capitalist nations on their impoverished neighbors.
I took part in the Water War protests, and I feel strongly that water is the kind of thing that ought to remain basically in the public domain – especially in Bolivia, where the commodification of water runs completely contrary to cultural understandings of the relationship between human beings and the natural resources that make up their surroundings. But I also recognize why a lot of waterworks in the United States are controlled by public-private hybrids, and that this often works well. The important thing is that they must be managed A) by technically competent professional experts, B) for the good of the community, and C) with due consideration for both conservation and the fact that water is a basic human necessity.
I think about all of this as I watch the 99% movement blossom in the U.S., because I think it speaks to an aspect of OWS that is simultaneously most encouraging and most misunderstood by critics. OWS is not a single protest for a single list of demands. Rather than lobby to tweak pre-chosen details of a system that has thoroughly failed society, the activists in Liberty Park and elsewhere are witnessing to another way of living and working together, and allowing any demands or proposals to grow out of that experiment.
The protesters are starting by denouncing what is wrong. Many have criticized them for simply whining when they have no concrete proposals for what an alternative should look like. People made similar criticisms of the Water War protesters – and myriad other “anti-globalization” activists (“anti-globalization” is a bit of a misnomer – the problem is the corporate-capitalist control of the process). But the idea that nobody ought to denounce an economic system unless they have a clear alternative plan mapped out is a little like telling a victim of domestic violence that she shouldn’t complain about her husband’s abuse until she’s written a self-help book on how to have a successful marriage. People know when they’re getting stepped on, and they have a right to resist without having to first explain where they’ll go once they’re allowed to stand up and brush themselves off.
The Water War, significant as it was, did ultimately amount to little more than a cry of “No!” There was nobody in the movement capable of following through and making public control viable for Cochabamba’s waterworks. The 99% movement seems determined not to make that mistake. By “occupying” rather than simply marching on Wall Street and other places, they are expressing righteous anger in a way that is long-term and bold, refusing to placate themselves with a fleeting single day’s headlines. But they are also building something new by the very ways they are managing to sustain the occupation. They are doing the arduous work of consensus-based decision-making in a community of diverse strangers. They are debating issues of how to be pluralistic and hold onto their founding principles and shared values simultaneously. They are taking care of one another’s material needs. They are creative. They are really a model of deep democracy.
If you actually listen to the interviews with protesters, they are – surprisingly, to some – remarkably articulate about the myriad specific ways in which the current system has failed us. They know they think capitalism is pretty weird, but they also know they’re dependent on toilets at a nearby McDonald’s, and supporters around the country are helping to feed them by ordering them pizzas at a local, privately owned pizzeria – one that nobody has attempted to burn down. They are both radical and practical, and don’t see either as detrimental to the other.
When asked by Keith Olbermann whether OWS would be making concrete demands, a spokesman for the protesters, Ryan Hoffman, said, “the major thing that we have to focus on is getting people away from the apathy and towards action, and I think once more people are involved solutions will present themselves. And this is the opportunity for everyone to get involved in this conversation, and that's what we want. And we're not going to make demands on behalf of the 99 percent when the 99 percent aren't involved yet. You know, this is not a liberal issue. This is not a conservative issue. This is a person issue, and we want all people involved.”
There are two kinds of reporters I see reporting on the protests: those who focus on the lack of a concrete list of demands, and those who visit and report on the remarkable communities evolving among the protesters in Lower Manhattan and elsewhere. The first group displays its bias by expecting the protesters to appeal and ultimately defer to the powers that be. The latter group understands that, while the 99% may currently be represented by a fraction of a percent, and that fraction of a percent may be starting slowly (ploddingly, even), it is what they are starting that matters. They are saying and showing that another way is possible. In the tradition of the great prophets, they are both denouncing and announcing. This is true revolution. This is faith like a mustard seed. This is cause for hope.
So as they move forward, my hope is that the protesters will find a way to maintain the prophetic voice of the vanguard, while integrating the rest of the 99% into the movement. It’s a tall order. It’s got to include hippies and hamburger guys, union organizers and water systems managers. The goal is no less than reinventing the United States as a more democratic, less (non-?) capitalistic society. But with good old American ingenuity and hard work – two traits that have traditionally been tightly bound to corporate capitalism in our national mythology, but which are actually entirely extricable from that rather brutish economic system – I believe there’s nothing we, the 99%, can’t do.
To paraphrase stage banter from another great concert: “Yes We Can” is a slogan Barack Obama stole from Caesar Chavez… we’re stealing it back.