Smoke Screen and Smoke Signals
by JASON READ
It is difficult to view the 2012 US election, especially the Presidential election, from the perspective of Occupy. If Occupy has anything like a unified perspective, and it is very much a question if it does, it would include at least two defining characteristics: a critique of representational politics and the two party system and a critique of massive inequality. The first of these kept the relationship between Occupy and the election indirect, while the second filtered through in conflicted ways.
With respect to the former, the 2012 saw intense debates and discussions about the merits of voting on the part of liberals and progressives. Some of this frustration with voting no doubt stemmed from the frustration with Barack Obama, who not only could no longer claim the historic mantle of change, but disappointed many with a domestic agenda that left the structural problems of Wall Street unaddressed while continuing the war on terror policies that Bush had begun. Many of these arguments were not new, repeating the critiques of the “lesser of two evils” stance that has dominated left discussions on the Democratic Party, but they took on increased intensity against the backdrop of the recent memories of occupations, strikes, and other forms of direct action. While it would be presumptive to conclude that these discussions had something to do with the lower voter turnout, down from 62% to 60%, or about 84 million, a recent Pew poll suggest that nonvoters in this election tend to have left orientation. The use of social media and various online discussion groups also warps perspective, placing private conversations in public light, but this election appears to be one in which the debate about voting and the limits of representational democracy not only increased in intensity but also extended throughout wider portions of society.
When it comes to the second issue, that of inequality, matters are much more complicated and perhaps more interesting. The themes of the 99% and the 1% as well as the role of financial capital appeared even in the Republican Primary. The Republican nominee, Mitt Romney’s immense wealth and tenure at Bain Capital became subject to a kind of right wing populist critique, which attempted to distinguish between the excess of finance and the belief in the free market. During the election these issues returned in force after a videotape of Romney discussing the 47% of American who do not pay taxes and would never vote for him surfaced. This number, 47% is based on a right wing response to the 99% that focuses on the 53% of Americans who pay federal income tax. The 47% are often presented as being entirely dependent on government support, but it actually includes those whose wages are too low to be charged federal income tax (as well as retirees and those in the military). Romney could not shake an image of being concerned only with the fate of the wealthy. It is important to note that this happened to despite the fact that Obama has only rhetorically aligned himself with the idea of a middle class and a more equal society, doing nothing to actually to challenge massive inequality. Obama never mentioned Occupy and steered clear of such events as the Chicago’s teacher strike and the recall effort in Wisconsin, actions organized by a combination of labor unions and activists.
Political elections are won and lost on appearances not policy, and Obama was able to appear as more connected despite the fact that inequality only increased during his presidency. Despite the disconnection between image and reality there is a positive dimension here as well. The Republicans tried to associate various Democrats with the image of Occupy, using images of struggle in the streets as an updated red baiting. Nowhere was this more the case than in the senate campaign of Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, whose work on debt and finance reform made it possible for her to be labeled the intellectual origins of Occupy. Whether or not such accusations are true is besides the point, it matters more that they failed. The 2012 election was the year that the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision ended restrictions on spending on elections. It was also the year that six billion dollars was spent on political advertisements, much of that by a corporate effort to forestall even the possibility of a challenge to their power. That these advertisements failed, and the various allegations and accusations of socialism and “anti-business” made of several Democrats and Obama failed as well, suggests a different set of fears and anxieties underlying American society. People were perhaps less afraid of the actions in the streets than in what was being said in boardrooms and expensive fundraisers.
The Presidential election (and electoral politics in general) is a smokescreen, passing over and obscuring the real exploitations that make up everyday life. As the election passed the real actions were elsewhere, in the Occupy Sandy group which mobilized mutual aid in the face of a storm and in the growing organization of strikes against Wal-Mart. This smokescreen is also a smoke signal, a signal that indicates something of the shifting passions and fantasies smoldering below. It is possible to see in this smoke a shift away from a bloated and corrupt electoral politics and towards a still smoldering disconnect. Perhaps the fire will catch again?