Occupy Wall Street, cynicism, and power

Wall Street has been occupied for over three weeks now. (If you’ve been living in a cave and are unaware of the existence of Occupy Wall Street, you can read up on it here.) That sense of rage, the slow-burning knowledge that things are not ok, has finally come to the surface. I’ve been praying for this for almost a year. Watching the Arab Spring unfold, seeing the protests rippling across Europe in the wake of austerity measures, I asked again and again, “What will it take for us to wake up? What will it take for Americans to take to the streets?” I wanted our moment of revolution, the rejection of existing methods of expression, a truly grassroots expression of uncompromised anti-establishment action, desde abajo y a la izquierda.
I want to believe so much that this movement can accomplish something, that there are policy changes which would meaningfully address the growing wealth gap. I want to let this be the re-growth of my idealism, my faith that a group of committed citizens can spur lasting changes in the power structure of the state. I want to believe that the state is not irredeemable. Even President Obama said that the protesters were expressing legitimate grievances, that growing inequality is an unfortunate fact of our society. And for a split second, I thought that might mean things would change.
But there’s always reality, and power. Or more accurately, the reality of power. And the reality of power is that the United States government, regardless of the party the president happens to belong to, exists primarily to defend the interests of business and capital. The government does not exist to protect your family, or ensure access to health care, or protect your grandchildren from the accumulation of toxic chemicals in their food. The government exists to defend existing power structures.
In this case, that means setting forth new trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Specifically, the agreements submitted by the Obama administration to Congress yesterday would allow foreign companies to be bailed out by the US government if changes our environmental and labor laws cause them to lose money. These agreements are literally the antithesis of everything that Occupy Wall Street stands for, and their timing seems like cruel irony. In the wake of the State Department’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, these things have ceased to shock me. But my lack of shock is in itself, surprising to me. Every time Obama does one more thing I disagree with, every time I shake my head and say, “It figures”, I can’t help but wonder—when did I become this cynical? And more disturbing than my cynicism—which has reached levels more appropriate for a 70-year old man than a young college student—is the fact that it exists in spite of my best efforts to the contrary. In spite of spending months trying to find reasons for hope, trying to believe that the abuses of those in power were not systematic and deliberate, that government could be redeemed—I can’t help but feel that the deep level of cynicism I’ve sunk to is nothing more than an accurate assessment of reality.
Even Ecuador has failed to provide a safe haven from the cruel reality of power. My host dad just returned from the Amazon, where he works as a petroleum engineer (he spends twenty days in the field, then ten days back home in Quito). Upon his return, he told me that he had talked to some indigenous people who live in Yasuní National Park. Yasuní sits on top of ample reserves of tar sands oil, which President Correa says he’s willing to leave in the ground if the international community pays Ecuador half the value of the oil—$3.5 billion over a ten year period. German delegates just visited Ecuador to see Yasuní, and have committed millions to the proposal. Correa went to the UN to raise support, and has $55 million pledged (he needs $100 million by the end of the year, or else he says he’ll open Yasuní).
I asked my dad about the Yasuní initiative. He said the indigenous people he talked to told him that there are already wells in the ground in the park, that the oil sitting underground has already been sold to China. He said that Correa’s efforts to raise money for the proposal amounted to nothing more than political theater, that he will be shocked if Yasuní doesn’t open for oil extraction eventually. I wish I could say I was surprised, but after everything I’ve heard about the Ecuadorian government, this seemed inevitable. Of course we’re going to take the most biodiverse place on earth and extract oil from it. Correa may succeed in painting himself and his country as victims of capitalism at the hands of Western neo-imperialist powers. “We wanted to save Yasuní,” he’ll tell the cameras, “but we needed money, and since the rich countries wouldn’t pay us to not destroy the rainforest, we had no choice.” I’ve never met the man; I can’t say whether he truly cares about conservation or just pays lip service when he knows it’s politically expedient to do so. But given that oil accounts for at least 50% of Ecuador’s export earnings, 15-20% of GDP and 30-40% of the government’s total revenues, the Ecuadorian government is logically going to defend extraction. Correa, unlike Obama, at least has the justification that the revenues are going to finance social programs to benefit the poor (at least in theory).
Knowing all this, I’m paralyzed by inaction. I know the Keystone pipeline cannot be built; I also know that I’m powerless to stop it. Even the group that’s organized to defeat it, Tar Sands Action, doesn’t seem to have a plan B. I asked them on Twitter, “Do you have a plan besides asking Obama nicely not to kill our planet?” Their response: “Yes, two weeks of sit-ins [at the White House] in August”. Then they linked to their action proposal, which included demands that the pipeline not be built, but no tactics beyond asking those in power to act against their own perceived self-interest. I tweeted back, “Sit-ins seem like a slightly more militant form of asking nicely.” I never received a response.
Putting faith in the state is an ineffective strategy for activism. If your entire plan consists of getting Congress to pass some piece of carefully-crafted legislation, what do you do when they refuse? If Obama’s State Department can say with a straight face that the construction of a major oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast will have “no significant adverse impacts” on the environment, how can any reasonable strategy for action rely on asking them to change their mind based on rational argument? Sure, you could tie a project up for years with lawsuits, but if you make it all the way to the Supreme Court and lose, what recourse do you have? Yet even knowing this, I can’t come up with plan B. We need the same critical mass that was willing to get arrested sitting peacefully in front of the White House to go sit in front of the bulldozers that break ground for the pipeline. We need a steady stream of cynics and idealists who care about the living planet to put themselves between power and the things it seeks to destroy. We need people willing to sabotage the pipeline. But as much as I believe in defending our earth, I have to wonder if we can win at all, even if we’re willing to break the law. Stand in front of bulldozers, and you will be arrested. Fight back, and you will get shot. Attack the pipeline, and you’ll shut down production for a little while, causing an oil spill in the process. And then it will be fixed. You’ll have to attack it again, and again. You will be caught and arrested. You’ll get a life sentence for domestic terrorism, if you’re lucky. In Ecuador, they don’t always bother with sentencing you. Assassins can be hired in Coca, an oil town in the Amazon, for less than $50. Naturally, oil companies have made use of this fact get rid of problematic activists. One way or another, you will be silenced, and maybe someone will follow in your footsteps, but the overwhelming odds are in favor of power. They always are.
I have to believe that some of the people who are occupying Wall Street know this. And perhaps that’s why they’re out there, day after day, without a cohesive platform or leader or proposal for action. If I were home right now, I’d be in the streets too. I’m angry and cynical and exhausted just trying to keep track of the latest abuses and casualties of those in power. But I don’t have a plan for fixing it all. There are reforms that would help, that would put sufficiently large Band-Aids over the gaping holes in our social structure to make the lives of average people better. I’m in favor of anything that marginally improves the lives of average Americans, that helps to close the gaping wealth gap. I’m in favor of job creation programs and more progressive taxation and the whole laundry list of liberal reform goals. But it won’t be enough. It never is. And knowing that scares me unspeakably. It makes me terrified for the future, not so much for myself, but for indigenous communities and the working poor and the rare species of amphibians that live in Yasuní. It makes me want to do something, anything. It makes me want to take to the streets, placard in hand, chanting about democracy and wealth distribution and power, because I don’t know what else to do. I’m hoping that someone will figure that out before it’s too late, and I say that knowing that hope, just like putting faith in the state, is the antithesis of meaningful activism.
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