The Occupy Effect

25 Jan

In an earlier post, we commented on the difficulty movements such as Occupy Wall Street or Indignados were having in influencing the course of electoral politics. In Spain, in spite of all the protests in Madrid and other parts of the country, elections late last year saw the return of the Right to power after a campaign where its leader, Mariano Rajoy, pointedly avoided setting out anything like a detailed economic plan. In Italy and Greece, protests coincided with the replacement of elected governments by technocratic administrations rather than with any lurch to the left or any real change in austerity-based politics.

This may now be changing. Recent campaign speeches suggest that these popular mobilisations have begun to shift the terrain of representative politics. In France last weekend the Socialist Party candidate, François Hollande, in a keynote speech, made a point of targeting the world of finance. Two moments of his speech took on a confessional, intimate tone. I shall let you into a secret of mine, he said, clearly trying to differentiate himself from the current incumbent of the Elysée palace: “it is people that interest me, not money”. And a little later, with the same confessional tone: “let me share with you who my real enemy is… It is an enemy without a face or a name; it governs without being elected… It is the world of finance”. Hollande’s proposed policies to disable this “enemy” were in line with what has been suggested elsewhere: to isolate the speculative activities of banks from their commercial lending; to introduce a comprehensive financial transaction tax, not just a tax on the trading of stocks; to set up a public ratings agency at the European level and to renegotiate the EU fiscal pact so as to make explicit its growth model. Hollande called this a pact for responsibility, governance and growth.

In Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, given yesterday to Congress, the same themes were apparent. Invoking much of the Occupy rhetoric about the 99% versus 1%, Obama argued for a fairer, less unequal US society. He endorsed the Warren Buffet idea of raising taxes on the most wealthy and dismissed any claims that he was engaging in class warfare, calling these policies common sensical rather than partisan (see here for the Guardian’s write-up). The Republican primaries have similarly been taken up with the same themes. One of the problems faced by Mitt Romney is that he not an industrial magnate or oil man but gained his wealth through finance, making him the target of people’s anger at Wall Street and at bankers. The battle with Gingrich has been focused on tax with Romney forced to disclose his tax returns. Romney’s fight-back after his defeat in the South Carolina primary has been to highlight, under the banner ‘Newt Gingrich cashed in’, the payments received by Gingrich from the mortgage brokerage company, Freddie Mac.

If recent political mobilisations have indeed given this current economic crisis its political narrative, it is worth asking what this narrative is. So far, it is mainly an ethical critique of contemporary capitalism. Critics of finance take issue with the unscrupulous actions of bankers and hedge fund managers, their conspicuous wealth, the brazenness of new inequalities. In its place, Obama, Hollande and others call for a return to more traditional values where money matters less than people and the common good. There are obvious limits to such a critique. A defining feature of capitalism is its systemic nature: it is based upon a set of social relations that are more than merely the accumulation of individual intentions. Without uncovering the specific set of social relations that are the basis of today’s financialized capitalism, invocations towards a better, fairer society will only breed disappointment as changes fail to appear.

4 Responses to “The Occupy Effect”

  1. PeteR January 25, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    It may be that the Occupy movement is having some effect on electoral politics but it would be very surprising if that were to be a progressive or democratic effect. The movement into the squares, with its self-conscious rejection of programmatic development and its ostentatious embrace of so-called ‘direct democracy’, represents a retreat away from attempting to engage the electorate through representative politics. The demise of the elected governments in Greece and Italy offers striking confirmation. After months of demonstrations against austerity and the occupation of Syntagma square in Athens, when the Greek and Italian governments were finally deposed and reappointed at the say so of a mysterious network of foreign bankers and Eurocrats, there was barely any response at all on the streets. For the occupy activists representative democracy is so last century.

    It seems more likely then that, insofar as Obama and Hollande are influenced by the activists, the politicians are taking their cue from the reactionary potential of the Occupy movement. While I agree with you that the real problem lies in the market system of production rather than the symptoms of the problem arising from the operations of the financial sector, the problem of the ‘ethical critique of contemporary capitalism’ is not that it does not go far enough in getting to the root of the problem. The problem is that ethical criticism of the finance sector is not inherently radical or democratic at all and leads in an anti-democratic direction.

    The Nazis notoriously attacked the financiers to bolster their radical credentials while pursuing their anti-Semitic line about Jewish bankers. They could do this because the ethical critique of finance capitalism separates the claims on production that the financial sector trades in from the capitalist conditions of production themselves. Ethical criticism of the system’s financial excesses leaves the system itself not only untouched but legitimated and mystified.

    Even if anti-Semitism comes to play no part in contemporary campaigns, the ethical critique of capitalism invokes conservative themes. These are apparent in the pathetic depoliticized spat between Romney and Gingrich as to whose hands are dirtier. The content of this electoral politics is pure moralising. British conservative writer Peter Oborne commented last weekend on ‘The rise of the overclass’. The problem that inequality and the super-rich represent for Oborne is the same as that represented by the welfare-dependent: ‘Among both the very rich – the “overclass” – and the very poor – the “underclass” – the idea of responsibility, duty, patriotism and neighbourliness has been destroyed.’ Oborne may be right about this. Duty, patriotism and neighbourliness are no doubt attractive themes for Obama.

    • thecurrentmoment January 25, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

      On your last point, note that Obama has lined up not even just with the ‘good capitalists’ against the ‘bad ones’ but with the ‘good *financiers*’ against the bad ones – Warren Buffett’s assistant symbolically sitting next to Michelle Obama at the State of the Union address. Buffett presented as the figurehead of responsible, dutiful patriotic capitalism because he’s willing to pay a little more in taxes – or at least more than his considerably less well compensated assistant.

  2. The Current Moment January 25, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

    The problem with the ethical critique is indeed not that it is insufficient but that it is wrong. But Obama, Hollande and others have correctly read the mobilisations themselves. Stripped of a systematic critique of financialisation, their own stance was essentially a moralistic one. Which has now been taken up by the political establishment. As with the Occupy and Indignados movements more generally, the danger is that frustration at the ineffectiveness of this critique will make mobilisation more difficult next time around.


  1. François Hollande and the conservative critique of capitalism « thecurrentmoment - February 29, 2012

    […] an earlier post, we criticized the French Socialist Party candidate, François Hollande, for his moralizing […]

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