Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Frank Rich: 'Inchoate class war' won't be solved by '12 elections

Many are criticizing OWS for not having a clearer diagnosis of America's problems, and a ready batch of proposed solutions. But that's unfair. The OWS movement was started and continues to be fueled mainly by the young, who can't be expected to know everything. But that doesn't mean they know nothing. Here's their advantage: these young people still retain their acute adolescent sensitivity to unfairness.

For instance, what many of us have come to sigh and take for granted, as just the way of American capitalism -- that big bankers grow rich during the good times, and even richer in bad times -- OWS sees as fundamentally unjust, and a symptom of something deeply wrong with our country. They may not have the experience or erudition to say exactly what is wrong, but they recognize colossal injustice when they see it.

They recognize the unfairness of a system which told them all their lives, "Education is the key to employment and the American dream," and yet they are graduating with huge student loan debt and few job prospects.

They recognize as a baldfaced lie that America is "bankrupt" thanks to "welfare" and therefore cannot offer mortgage relief, student debt relief, invest in infrastructure, or stimulate jobs, and yet America can somehow find $4 trillion for wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, and $16 trillion for bank bailouts (or 111% of U.S. GDP in 2010).

(Indeed, let's pause and remind ourselves that for today's college freshmen, America has been at war half their lives. Since the time they started to perceive the outside world they have known only global terrorism, "the long war," "support our troops," and indefinite U.S. occupation. How that formative experience will affect them throughout their lives no one can tell....)

Pundits like Frank Rich say "the class war has begun." No. It started at least 30 years ago. OWS is just an acknowledgment of hostilities. In their own way the Tea Parties were also an acknowledgment, but they chose to target the wrong elites as Frank Rich points out; or, as I would say, they were right to recognize Washington as the problem, but the TPs were stubbornly blind in ignoring corporate donations and lobbyists as Washington's puppet masters.

OWS may not last through the cold winter, but Americans' "inchoate" class anger isn't going anywhere. The 2012 elections don't promise to resolve anything -- they promise only to be the most depressing political contest in my lifetime. The sad truth is that both Democrat and Republican leaders want OWS to disappear, because that's what their masters want.

And the very classlessness of our society makes the conflict more volatile, not less.
By Frank Rich
October 23, 2011 | New York Magazine


Try as polite company keeps trying to ignore it, that war has been building in this country and abroad for much of this decade and has been waged in earnest in America since the fall of 2008. But the crisp agenda demanded of Occupy Wall Street will not be forthcoming. The inchoateness of our particular class war is central to its meaning. America is not Tahrir Square or the riot-scarred precincts of North London, where everyone knows at birth who is in which class and why. We pride ourselves on being a "classless" democracy. We abhor ideology. When Americans left and right, young and old, express anger at an overclass, they don't necessarily agree about who's on which side of that class divide. The often confusing fluidity of class definitions, especially in an America as polarized as ours is now, may make our home­grown class war more volatile, not less.


Back in 1931, even Hoover worried that "timid people, black with despair" had "lost faith in the American system" and might be susceptible to the kind of revolutions that had become a spreading peril abroad. When Roosevelt took office, he had the confidence that his leadership could overcome that level of despair and head off radicals on the left or right. In 2011, the despair is again black, and faith in the system is shaky, but it would be hard to describe the atmosphere at Zuccotti Park or a tea-party rally as prerevolutionary. The anger of the class war across the spectrum seems fatalistic more than incendiary. No wonder. Everyone just assumes the fix is in for the highest bidder, no matter what. Take—please!—the latest bipartisan Beltway panacea: the congressional supercommittee charged by the president and GOP leaders to hammer out the deficit-reduction compromise they couldn't do on their own. The Washington Post recently discovered that nearly 100 of the registered lobbyists no doubt charged with besieging the committee to protect the interests of the financial, defense, and health-care industries are former employees of its dozen members. Indeed, six of those members (three from each party) currently have former lobbyists on their staffs.


Elections are supposed to resolve conflicts in a great democracy, but our next one will not. The elites will face off against the elites to a standoff, and the issues animating the class war in both parties won't even be on the table. The structural crises in our economy, our government, and our culture defy any of the glib solutions proposed by current Democrats or Republicans; the quixotic third-party movements being hatched by well-heeled do-gooders are vanity productions. The two powerful forces that extricated America from the Great Depression—the courageous leadership and reformist zeal of Roosevelt, the mobilization for World War II—are not on offer this time. Our class war will rage on without winners indefinitely, with all sides stewing in their own juices, until—when? No one knows. The reckoning with capitalism's failures over the past three decades, both in America and the globe beyond, may well be on hold until the top one percent becomes persuaded that its own economic fate is tied to the other 99 percent's. Which is to say things may have to get worse before they get better.

Over the short term, meanwhile, the Democratic Establishment is no doubt wishing that Occupy Wall Street will melt away with the winter snows, much as its Republican counterpart hopes that the leaderless tea party will wither if Romney nails down the nomination. But even in the unlikely event that these wishes come true, it is not likely to be the end of the story. Though the Bonus Army was driven out of Washington in the similarly fraught election year of 1932, the newsreels they left behind turned out to be previews of coming attractions for the long decade still to come.

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