Swans Commentary » swans.com April 23, 2012  



Harnessing People Power
Co-Option at Work in America Today


by Edmund Berger



(Swans - April 23, 2012)   Throughout history change has been a perpetual tug-of-war between the different social classes. These great divisions have been recast again and again in various manifestations (the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the have and have-nots, the 1% and the 99%), but they are always expressing the same common problem: progress, however far it takes us, cannot seem to shake off its built-in inequalities and injustices that always follow alongside it. This sentiment is not the subject of perpetual debate, however. It is most often found in the margins, outside the mainstream, only flickering into popular consciousness when the truly irrational nature of the dominant system reveals itself. These irrationalities serve to mobilize the multitude to demand change, yet the result of these mobilizations is a rationalization of underlying problems. Change does come, but it is limited and mutable, subject to its own changes.

Mass mobilization of people power most frequently comes during structural alterations to the prevailing economic paradigm, usually either in the form of crises or technological advances. Capitalism, by its very nature, is a destructive force that requires the existence of winners and losers, rigid hierarchy, the dissolution of the public and its replacement with the private. It seeks a state where nothing can exist outside its space. To meet this demand, any and all threats to its mechanisms must be absorbed into its operations or repressed outright.

While repressive tactics have long been a common tactic, the usage of progressive politics to undercut the growth of deeper critiques and resistance against the prevailing has been growing for quite some time. As technological advancements (particularly the rise of social media) interconnect the world, making communication an instantaneous process, abuses of power at this point can fuel discontent in ways that it couldn't in the narrow, closed world of yesterday. Given this relationship, it is poignant that limited reform was a byproduct of one of the largest alterations to capitalist system itself, dating back to the earliest processes of modernization.

The First Big Shake-Up and the Disappearance of Class

For much of its existence, capitalist (and pre-capitalist) production models were based on markets of limited production where workers produced goods that only the societal elite could indulge in. This flawed relationship was the initial impetus for class consciousness -- why, the worker wondered, could he not partake in the things being produced by his own hand? If I am the engine of industry, why is my pay so small, my workday so long, and my property so little? It was these sentiments that produced the great attacks on capitalism, such as the writings of Marx, that still persist in their probing insight today.

Rapid changes in technology in the early 20th century reworked entirely the dynamics of the workplace and the relationship between the workers and the work bosses. The introduction of electricity led to the creation of assembly lines in factories, where suddenly goods could be produced much quicker at a lower cost and greater quantities, with less physical labor exerted by the workers. Later known as Fordism for the use of assembly line technology in the automobile factories of Henry Ford, this sudden transformation meant that the buying power of the public had to be drastically reworked. Purchasing power relegated to the elite classes would no longer suffice; what was necessary was the ability of all social classes to consume commodities.

As an extension of this need, industrialists and financiers grappling with the brave new world of mass production were forced to rethink their fundamental approach to wealth distribution and wages; as a result, higher living wages became a trademark of Fordism because of its ability to promote higher levels of consumption. Others, such as department store magnate Edward Filene, took it a step further, cheering the rise of an "industrial democracy" and observing that existing "successfully in the Machine Age" would require "the abandonment of all class thinking." (1) However, when he spoke these words, he was not alluding to the eradication of the class system itself, but a move to eliminate it as a rhetorical talking point or launching pad for analysis and critique: "The industrial democracy I am discussing has nothing to do with the Cubist politics of class revolution." (2) What would be required would be a way to cushion the underclasses from the capitalist market's more destructive tendencies, undercutting the class tensions fueling populist unrest. To match these needs, Filene set up a philanthropy, the Twentieth Century Fund, and through it channeled a portion of his wealth to progressive causes that would help bolster the public's buying power (the Social Security system benefited from investments in research conducted by Filene's organization).

The Twentieth Century Fund is only one of a multitude of giant, liberal-minded philanthropies that have sprung up to counter market-induced poverty, inequality, and other potential hotbeds for radicalism. The "Big Three" -- the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie foundations -- have historically been the highest profiles, acting as huge monolithic concentrations of corporate wealth that dole out money to the causes they deem the most important. Today, the Big Three find their counterparts in outfits such as the Tides Foundation, Atlantic Philanthropies, and the Open Society Institute. Between all of these foundations, activists, universities, think tanks, forums, media outlets, artists, and many more find a deep well of resources to draw on -- assuming their work isn't too radical or challenging to the status quo. However, liberal foundations can use their power to "smooth out" the more radical elements of society, leveraging their impressive wealth to get activists to cast aside their more "outrageous" demands in exchange for funding. Sociologist Joan Roelofs has examined this process at work:

...the pluralist model of civil society obscures the extensive collaboration among the resource-providing elites and the dependent state of most grassroots organizations. While the latter may negotiate with foundations over details, and even win some concessions, capitalist hegemony (including its imperial perquisites) cannot be questioned without severe organizational penalties. By and large, it is the funders who are calling the tune. This would be more obvious if there were sufficient publicized investigations of this vast and important domain. That the subject is 'off-limits' for both academics and journalists is compelling evidence of enormous power. (3)

This strategic co-option of activists and the social change movements that they represent is not exclusive to the private sector; the United States government appears to routinely conduct such operations under the innocuous-sounding foreign policy of "democracy promotion." Through these policies, revolutionary uprisings or other social struggles are reworked into a paradigm of electoral politics. The methods of democracy promotion are done under the pretense of the pluralism that the promoters claim they want to see realized, with different foreign bodies acting in conjunction with different sectors of the population or with different movements that have similar goals. However, studies reveal that these organizations are frequently linked to one another by interlocking directorships, direct funding ties, or are in actuality subsidiaries of larger, umbrella organizations. Taking the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as an example, this method can be seen functioning through its four subsidiary organizations, each of which are aligned with either the Democrat and Republican parties, the Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO labor union. The Chamber of Commerce's project, the Center for International Private Enterprise, works primarily with business groups, while the International Republican Institute and National Democratic Institute work with various civil society groups and orientate them towards electoral campaigning and voter awareness. The AFL-CIO's unit, the Solidarity Center, promotes moderate labor unionization to harmonize the often turbulent relationship between the workers and their bosses. These methods of co-option follow roughly a seven point process once a social movement that is strong enough to challenge the status quo has been formed. When properly implemented, the process successfully strips social movements of their more radical "excesses" and reworks them into compatibility with more moderate reformist political figures, thus saving the dominant structures from threats from below. This process is as follows:

Step 1: "Diplomatic overtures" and declarations of ideological solidarity with the social movement.

Step 2: The providing of necessary resources and training, often in nonviolent protest tactics, to the movement.

Step 3: Narrowing the focus of the movement's agenda and framing the topics of debate around certain key elements.

Step 4: Assisting in or organizing the actions of the movement.

Step 5: Moving elements in the movement or the movement in its entirety into alignment with certain elite figures, most frequently ones from economics and business.

Step 6: Building allegiances between the movement and other factions or political parties.

Step 7: Integrating the movement into the electoral process by creating them into a voting bloc and transforming their actions into awareness-raising for their political candidate. The politicians who ride into office on United States-backed social movements ultimately betray the ideologies that drove their voting base, and with the triumph of each administration, loans from transnational institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund flow in, borders are opened to fluctuations of the world market, publicly-owned assets are privatized and sold off the highest bidder, and in the more extreme cases, repression of dissent becomes common. What "democracy promotion" boils down is the exporting of the Western neoliberal form of democracy, the well-oiled plutocracy built atop the sanctity of markets. It is the projection of the "American Dream" -- the idea that material abundance, private property, and enterprise are the necessary requirements for happiness and success. It was through the image of the American Dream that Filene had hoped class-based thinking would be erased -- philanthropy to protect enterprise and property, and mass production (and the rise of debt as common factor in economics) to create the appearance of successful material accumulation.

The Return of Social Classes

The successes of the modified system have been the norm for some time in the United States, even as neoliberalism proliferated and grew during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and each subsequent administration. Discontent was expressed, although it was marginal and fractured into various struggles such as union battles, identity politics, and antiwar protests. Each of these fights benefited greatly from resources rooted in the establishment's combines: large unions have traditionally been aligned with the Democrat Party; minority, women, and gay rights advocates have been major funding recipients of philanthropies; and contention over wars has been capitalized on by politicians looking to win out over their competitors. As a result, these struggles rarely address the underlying economic orders, and when they do, they only serve to moderately adjust corporatism into a more flexible position that leaves itself intact.

Then the financial crisis happened. The problems of debt-based economies and unchecked market power -- as well as the flaws inherent to the modern conception of property ownership -- exploded around the globe, prompting governments to scramble and reject their most treasured ideology to engage in expensive bailouts of failing industry and banking systems at taxpayer expense. The words of Martin Luther King, Jr., who defined the current system as "socialism for the rich, capitalism for the poor," had never rung truer. As David Harvey wrote in 2010,

Taxpayers are simply bailing out the banks, the capitalist class, forgiving them their debts, their transgressions, and only theirs. The money goes to the banks but so far in the US not to the homeowners who have been foreclosed upon or to the population at large. And the banks are using the money, not to lend to anybody but to reduce their leveraging and to buy other banks. They are busy consolidating their power. This unequal treatment has prompted a surge of populist political anger from those living in the basement against the financial institutions... (4)

Reponses to the crisis in the form of social movements sprung up on both the left and the right. On the conservative side of things, the Tea Party movement assaulted glaring government incompetence and clamored that bailing out "too big to fail" corporations was a violation of free-market principles; the movement was heavily subsidized by corporate donors and conservative philanthropists such as the Koch brothers, and the money was utilized to create a powerful political force inside Washington, D.C. Developing later was a surge in left-wing mobilization that saw past the rhetoric of identity politics and antiwar discontent (while incorporating these trends into their ethos) and straight to the flaws in capitalism itself: the "Occupy" movement.

The Occupy movement, while grounding itself in certain fixed geographical locations (Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Oakland, Occupy Portland, etc), has sought to operate outside the grand narratives of capitalism, and ultimately the representative democracy of the nation-state. By integrating a vision of how a future society would work into their day to day operations and then replicating them in each locale, the movements transcend their geographical limitations and, in principle, negate the existing order that surrounds them. The rise of these micro-democracies across the nation is a stark departure from the traditional methods of protest, which have typically emphasized electoral politics and limited reform. Thus, despite its pitfalls and shortcomings, Occupy has exposed critical chinks in the dominant system's armor -- not only by subverting its use of space, but by bringing class-conscious issues (as well as the important term "99%") to the front of public debate. By virtue of its existence alone, the broken nature of the American Dream lay open for all to see, and by bringing this reality to light, a threat is posed to the established order.

Repression came quickly as the space occupied by the protestors was reclaimed by authorities through police action, but by this point damage had already been done. The ideological framework -- the Marxian proletariat and bourgeoisie recast as the 99% and 1% -- has spread across the United States and beyond. The vast inequalities in wealth existent in the world's leading exporter of capitalism is once again the topic of popular analysis and debate, feeding into an increase in radicalization (regardless of whether or not it occurs under the Occupy banner). Yet the movement underwent a brief lull during the winter of 2011-2012, thanks to a combination of dropping temperatures, police tactics, and the mainstream media's tendency to discard important topics for the next bit of catchy news. However, it was decided that spring would see a return of the movement to full force.

Democracy Promotion Comes Home

Occupy has concerned itself with the potential threats posed by those who seek to co-opt the movement for political or economic gain, but has managed to resist it through its organization model -- eschewing leadership for democratically-operated councils and assemblies and shying away from institutional donors. There does exist the threat of rhetorical and aesthetic appropriation, and it seems that there is possibly such an operation underway now; when put into context, it appears to be closely following the seven stages of democracy promotion.

In October of 2011, a writer for TruthOut observed that MoveOn.org, an Internet activist platform, had been attempting to cozy up to the movement by hosting a "virtual march on Wall Street" and urging "clicktivists" to take pictures of themselves holding signs proclaiming solidarity with the 99%. (5) Even as these images were "spontaneously" uploaded onto the internet, protestors across America treated MoveOn with suspicion, given their close history with the Democratic Party and association in particular with the initial election campaign for Barack Obama.

Months later, as winter came to a close, MoveOn began to announce that it would host a series of nationwide seminars dedicated to training the multitude in methods of nonviolent direct action in preparation for a movement referred to simply as the "99% Spring." At a glance, the terminology and timing inherently brings to mind Occupy's planned return. Yet digging deeper reveals that "99% Spring" is almost entirely a creation of MoveOn: their primary platform for outreach is their Web site (the99spring.com), the domain registry of which lists MoveOn's co-founder, Wes Boyd, as their administrative contact. (6) Furthermore, the coordinators for the training programs, which are cited as being "inspired by Occupy Wall Street," are all well affiliated with MoveOn.

This strategic maneuver by MoveOn coincides with the rising prominence of Rebuild the Dream, a progressive patriot organization that the organization helped launch in 2011. Rebuild the Dream's founder, Van Jones, is tied directly to the Democratic Party establishment -- the self-proclaimed "eco-capitalist" had been President Obama's pick as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. His appointment was short lived, however, as he stepped down in the face of conservative criticism over his former ties to the socialist collective STORM (Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement). After shedding his more radical politics in the mid-1990s for a more moderate standpoint, Jones associated himself with various progressive outfits before founding the organization Color for Change in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Importantly, his fellow co-founder at Color for Change was James Rucker, an executive director at MoveOn. (7)

When Rebuild the Dream initially launched, it attempted to latch itself on to the Occupy movement, making declarations of solidarity with the 99% and calling on people to support the protests on Wall Street. Yet Jones's rhetoric contrasted sharply with the movement's methodology of direct democracy and dissatisfaction with the political system by referring to his organization as a platform for electoral politics. Now, months later, the processes by which he is going to conduct campaigns is slowly emerging: MoveOn's 99% Spring Web site lists Rebuild the Dream as one of the organizations that forms the springtime coalition. Importantly, another listed organization is the AFL-CIO, the United States' labor union of choice when it comes to its democracy-promotion programs abroad.

Directing Action

MoveOn's direct action training program is centered around a video that walks the leader of each session through the procedures of communicating these ideas to their audience. The video itself adopts a very telling tone, repeatedly identifying itself with Occupy by reiterating "we are the 99%," time and time again, showing clips of OWS protests, and verbally communicating their connection to the movement. At the same time there is no mention actually challenging the dominant economic structure, talking only of "fixing the economy." Likewise, Occupy's position of transnational solidarity is replaced by refocusing its agenda solely on "the nation." The speakers in the video are representatives from the various progressive organizations that support the 99% Spring. One of the first of these is an individual from National People's Action; this organization, incidentally, received $1,050,000 from the Ford Foundation in 2011 as part of the philanthropy's initiative to increase "civic and political participation." (8)

The video is supplemented by notes for the trainees, which are posted freely on the MoveOn Web site. In these notes, MoveOn credits representatives from Rebuild the Dream as helping to craft some of the exercises to be used in the training sessions. (9) The further one goes in the notes, more interesting tidbits emerge. For example, it becomes clear that the training sessions are part of a wider, pre-planned program. The objective, MoveOn states, is "to support people taking action together locally in a 6 week 99% Spring Action program." This is reiterated in the closing statement that MoveOn asks the trainers to give:

What a great day. But this is only the beginning. The change we want to create in our local communities is going to take a lot from all of us. The more we come together as the 99% to create change the more we can win. In order to hold the 1% accountable we are inviting tens of thousands of people across the country to join in a 6 week push of 99% Spring Actions.

The details of the 99% Spring Actions began to emerge immediately after the end of the April 15th sessions. An email sent out that evening read "Now that your training is over, plan a Tax Day protest," and provided platforms for individuals willing to host protests -- essentially taking people by the hand and crafting the operation by proxy. In my hometown the work has been moving rapidly, with a local MoveOn volunteer reminding people to "bring a sign about the 1% paying their fair share" for a protest scheduled for April 17th.

This is a critical development -- the defining of the parameters of the debate. The wide-sweeping criticisms conducted by the Occupy movement are whittled down to a single digestible talking point to rally around, something that is easily mutable and ready to be used as a campaign point in an electoral campaign. It circumvents discussion of wider structural changes, and exploits the notion that taxes are somehow antithetical to the capitalist system itself. In the heyday of populism, it was not uncommon of progressive-minded members of the elite class to advocate moderate reforms that required the use of taxation -- many of Filene's ideas, such as an "allowance" for every American citizen, required mild redistribution of wealth to maintain sustainable levels of consumption. Taxes, while often serving a legitimately beneficial role in society, only serve to put a temporary fix on the fact that the notion of trickle-down economics is fundamentally flawed. Even Thomas Friedman, author of the ode to neoliberalism, The World Is Flat, has endorsed the idea of tax increases by noting that "Capitalism can't work without safety nets or fiscal prudence, and we need both in a sustainable balance." (10)

Van Jones's vision for this burgeoning movement was further publicized in early April in a book that boasts the same name as his organization, Rebuild the Dream. Segments of Rebuild the Dream were published on the Web site of the magazine The Nation, laying out the book's thesis of "Deep Patriotism," updating the inaccurate 1950's Americana image for the modern "multi-racial, multi-faith, gender fabulous, twitter-addicted and body-pierced" generation. (11) The article's opening salvos explicitly reject the 99% vs. 1% concept that has fueled social unrest from New York City to Oakland: "A movement that defines itself as the 99 percent against the 1 percent probably cannot succeed in America. But a movement that defines itself as the 99 percent for the 100 percent cannot fail." He also reiterates America's commitment to the capitalist model, noting that "Americans like the risks and rewards that come with living in a market economy; we don't mind having winners and losers, but we go ballistic when anyone tries to rig the game. If some of today's super-wealthy outrage us, it is not because of their material success. It is because of their moral failings." The rhetoric sidesteps any and all debates on the structural integrities of the current market economies and the relationship between political and workplace democracy and autonomy; these were the things that set OWS and other movements apart from left-of-center Democratic Party politics. All in all, Jones's piece, much like MoveOn's training video, is written from a rather nationalist vantage point, again and again reiterating patriotic "down home" imagery ("Deep patriots don't just visit the Statue of Liberty and send a postcard home to grandma.") and drawing depictions of an America that resembles reality very little ("The United States is dedicated, in principle, to justice and equality...").

Even the publisher of Rebuild the Dream, Nation Books, is reflective of this progressive-lite mentality by belonging to the publishing group that prints The Nation magazine. This left-leaning publication, while drawing attention to the problems surrounding the United States' rampant militarization, climate change, and income inequality, fails to take the larger structural crisis of market economies into account. This reluctance could certainly be attributable to the fact that the publication's chief editor is well entrenched in elite establishments (serving at the Council on Foreign Relation, for example) and that funding has flowed in from moderate liberal philanthropies. (12) In this context, it is interesting to take note that one critic of The Nation writes of the magazine as being "funded by 'enlightened' members of the capitalist class... who feel the need to point out its shortcomings but who can't conceive of alternatives to the system that has blessed them with riches beyond imagination." (13) Regardless, this hasn't stopped the magazine from attempting to cash in on the 99% image, with a new TV ad informing viewers they have "have the power to restore the middle class" (among other quasi-populist sentiments) if they "connect [their] power to powerful ideas from The Nation."

Unsurprisingly, The Nation can be linked to the Rebuild the Dream movement in several ways. In one case, the publication had put out an "Occupy Spring" issue; one of the authors for the issue (and now currently a full-time writer for the magazine) was Ilyse Hogue. Hogue, prior to her hiring at The Nation, served as the Director of Political Advocacy and Communication at MoveOn, and is currently on the board of directors at Rebuild the Dream. (14) In another example, one member of The Nation's editorial board, Deepak Bhargava, is the executive director of the Center for Community Change (CCC) -- an organization that worked with MoveOn in initially launching Jones's project. (15)

The CCC is worth elaborating a little on. The outfit, which works primarily in prompting economic development in low-income neighborhoods and regions, was founded in 1968 as a program of the United Auto Workers labor union (which today is acting as yet another coalition member of the 99% Spring) and the Ford Foundation. Ford continues to subsidize the CCC's work to this day, and it is supplemented by funding from other large liberal philanthropies (such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Tides Foundation), as well as various corporate interests. This capitalist-led development agenda has, predictably, sought to alleviate poverty through market-based initiatives like the "community development corporation" model, itself a brainchild of the Ford Foundation. By allowing outside investors to come in and act as the primary stakeholders in the functioning of the developing area, the radicalism and democratic aspirations of these "troubled neighborhoods" are completely undercut. "Missions once framed around confronting and challenging the prevailing system of economic control in low income neighborhoods," said one New York City activist, "are now geared simply to accommodating the status quo and domesticating potentially troublesome residents." (16) One activist in South Carolina was even more explicit about the CCC's agenda: "One day I was an anti-poverty worker. The next day I discovered I was a shopping mall developer." (17)

One last connection of Bhargava to talk about is his former place of employment, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), where he served as a legislative director. ACORN, much like Van Jones, became a centerpiece of conservative criticism during the early days of the Obama administration, after it was discovered that the president had ties to the organization dating back to his time as a community organizer and that he had benefited from the association's "get out and vote" campaigns during his 2004 bid for Senate. Conservative media pundits took Obama's ACORN ties as evidence of the president's secret socialism, charging that the organization is continuing a "1960's-bred agenda of anti-capitalism" that seeks a "radical reconstruction" of the economy. (18) Indeed, ACORN has done excellent work by helping to stand with homeowners facing foreclosure from the banks and raising awareness of predatory lending tactics. However, when it comes to more radical manifestations of social change, ACORN falls short: in the early 2000s, the progressive organization entered into a battle with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) when several workers began a move to unionize the organizing body. In a move condemned by the National Labor Relations Board, ACORN intimidated and laid off the employees who were advocating the unionization plans. (19)

Ironically, these actions occurred under the stewardship of ACORN's founder and executive director, Wade Rathke, a former labor organizer for the Service Employees International Union (yet another organization in the ever-expanding list of 99% Spring supporters). To complicate matters further, ACORN assisted in managing multiple SEIU branches. This contradiction can be understood by the differing approaches to unionization conducted by the SEIU and the IWW: the SEIU, on one hand, supports the moderate labor model where workers are organized along the lines of their specific industry, while the IWW strives to represent all workers evenly under a common identity. This approach is far closer to the Marxist analysis of the workforce, and directly challenges the underlying methodology of capitalism by creating new interpretations of the worker/boss relationship and opening up wider potential for striking power and dissent. This direct opposition is something that ACORN has attempted to avoid even as it confronts capitalist power; like its myriad connected and interlocked organizations, it attempts to reconcile the most fundamental discrepancy in the current economic model -- the conflict between the necessity of property for all and the privatization of the property market. Thus, it's extremely revealing for the wider context of this article that sociologist G. William Domhoff has lumped ACORN with the aforementioned CCC and National People's Action as promoters of a "nationwide 'reinvestment movement,'" which urged the megabanks and other financial institutions to help spurn private enterprise development in low-income neighborhoods. (20)

This complex network of individuals and organizations is certainly reflective of the networks that form in foreign democracy promotion operations; as the writings of William I. Robinson have revealed, disparate strands of various movements and actions are often coordinated behind the scenes by different yet closely linked players acting in unison. (21) This strategy allows a mirror of pluralist democratic development to coalesce, obscuring the fact that these mid-level organizations are simultaneously buffers between the grassroots spectrum and the elite class, as well as a 'cut-out' to conduct interaction, manipulation, and outright co-option through. Seen in this framework, the specter of the 99% Spring becomes, less and less, indicative of sheer altruism.

Building Elite Consensus

Just as the American democracy promoters operating in foreign countries strive to create a direct relationship between social movements and certain player in each nation's affluent elite, MoveOn's Web site has begun to tout the appeal of mega-billionaire Warren Buffett. Likewise, the segment of Rebuild the Dream published by The Nation refers to Buffett as one the "patriotic millionaires" and a member of the "1% [that is] on our side." Part of Buffett's appeal to liberals is his philanthropic practices, much of which is conducted through the foundation of one of his ultra-rich compatriots, Bill Gates. He has also been extremely critical of the unfair tax system of the United States, going on record as acknowledging that the rich ought to pay their proper share. He's also a listed endorser for the Robin Hood Tax, alongside individuals such as Gates and the billionaire hedge fund manager George Soros -- who himself is a primary funder of MoveOn through his philanthropy, the Open Society Institute.

What's interesting is that the Robin Hood Tax, which is a small tax on international financial transactions, has received the endorsement of both a great many of the moderate transnational elite and grassroots social movements; as Buffett, Gates, and Soros all agree that the tax is the way to go, Adbusters, the organization responsible for initially putting out the call for the occupation of New York City's financial district, has urged OWS to also lend their name in support of it. (22) While this certainly reflects the process of finding commonalities between grassroots movements and elite reformers, the Robin Hood Tax is not a new fixture in the activist world. Its origins lie in the Tobin Tax, named for the former Federal Reserve employee James Tobin. Tobin's notion of a small international tax was appropriated by the French NGO ATTAC (Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens), the initiator of the World Social Forum and proponent of "smart globalization." (23) In Tobin's concept, however, the proceeds of the 0.5% tax would flow into the coffers of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), something which has been antithetical to the goals of anti-globalization activists worldwide. Thus, the tax in no way contradicted the structure of transnational neoliberalism. "I am an economist, and like most economists, I support free trade," Tobin has said. "[The] IMF has to be strengthened and broadened... [and] the WTO ought to be able to prohibit the industrialised countries from blocking the imports of developing countries by putting up obstacles to trade." (24)

Such a tax would operate in a manner consistent with the economic approach of John Maynard Keynes, who saw minor redistributive policies and limited state planning in economics as a method for markets to be simultaneously stimulated and protected from the demands of radicals who could capitalize on its bust cycles. He was not some visionary looking for structural change; dismissing the proletariat as "boorish," the economist wrote in 1925 that "the class war will find me on the side of the educated bourgeoisie." (25) This hierarchal and technocratic mindset of Keynes permeates every level of his economic philosophy, as it adds layers of governmental bureaucracy and 'enlightened planners' to the already caste-like class system. Such things, even though they may sheer the rougher edges off capitalism, still serve to obstruct true community-based democracy.

Top-down planning is the primary methodology of the democracy promoters and co-opters of social change. It is a critical paradox that reveals the true limitations of their ideology -- how can democracy be promoted if organizing is removed from the hands of the people? As primary power is removed from the movement as it's transitioned into the established order, the glossy veneer of being grassroots continues to exist, but it is falsified. Activists may regurgitate facts, but they are facts fed to them and almost certainly have a built-in bias or strategic use. MoveOn's own top-down approach to crafting the illusion of grassroots change is best reflected in a blurb on their Web site that reads:

This site is curated by a top-notch corps of MoveOn Volunteer Editors, who scour the Internet for the best progressive videos, images, charts, and ideas. Their goal? Find the content that you want to share on Facebook (and elsewhere), so that MoveOn's 7 million members can work together to spread important ideas and win the message war online. (emphasis in original)

These images are simplistic and reductionist; culled from other sites and then given to 'clicktivists' to disseminate, they are little more than internet memes. The tone of these images are almost always rightfully of the Republican Party, but always fall short of criticizing the Democrats or American economics at large. It amounts to a one-sided debate and what is ultimately lost is true plurality. One such image that MoveOn urges its members to spread around the internet is a chart defending the bailout of the auto industry, which in itself shows the ideological gulf between the organization and movements that want to legitimately challenge capitalist supremacy. The chart, incidentally, was taken from Thinkprogress.org, a program of the Center for American Progress (CAP). CAP, an organization that I've written about at length in other articles, (26) has been close to both MoveOn and the Democrat Party (particularly in relation to the Obama administration), and boasts Van Jones as a senior fellow. Furthermore, Jones has utilized CAP forums as platforms to promote his book and his movement, while CAP has prepared a "Contract for the American Dream" to hosted on the movement's Web site.

Everything in the CAP-crafted contract is a market-friendly answer to pressing social problems: investing in infrastructure, higher taxes on the wealthy, and the creation of wide-sweeping jobs programs -- none of which profoundly transforms our political and economic systems. If it seems reminiscent of FDR and his New Deal, that's probably intentional -- Jones has channeled the progressive leader in calling for a "Green New Deal" as an adequate stimulus package to reinvigorate the stagnant economy. This eco-Keynesianism, in the eyes of the societal elite, would work much like the original New Deal by recreating populist discontent in the market's own image. Much like Rebuild the Dream's vision of statist market stimulation, the New Deal arose in a time when grassroots movements were applying dangerous pressure on the fragile system. As the words of communist organizers began to ring true to the unemployed, the United States Senate was warned by the head of the Farm Bureau Federation that "Unless something is done for the American farmer we will have revolution in the countryside within less than twelve months." (27)

Something was indeed done that ultimately served to save capitalism from its near-fate: FDR appropriated many of the demands of the multitude and used them as market stimulants, while also absorbing populist leaders into his sphere of influence. If the New Deal did contain flirtations with socialism, as so many have claimed, it was a temporary Band-Aid on a broken system that opened space for neoliberal proliferation to return later. Despite this, a great many of the more conservative-minded business leaders, much like today, could not understand the government's sudden rejection of unbridled market fundamentalism. The president, on the other hand, was confused at the vehement opposition. "One of my principle tasks," FDR explained, "is to prevent bankers and businessmen from committing suicide." (28) This statement is confirmation of Joan Roelofs's observation that "Progressives and corporate liberals want to maintain corporate wealth and power, even if the 'free market' must be sacrificed to do so." (29)

Concluding Thoughts

When applying the rhetoric and methodology of the 99% Spring to the seven stages of democracy promotion, disturbing parallels can certainly be found. Step one was launched in October of 2011 with Rebuild the Dream and MoveOn's endorsement of the Occupy movement. Step two -- crash courses in nonviolent resistance -- has just completed, and is rolling directly into step three, with the parameters of debate being defined along the lines of taxation. The planning of the 99% Spring and the tax-related protest actions certainly correlate with step four, and hints of step five are appearing with MoveOn and Van Jones's allusions to the benevolence of moderate elite figures such as Warren Buffett. The fulfillment of step six, the building of alliances between the grassroots movement and political parties, has yet to be realized, but foreshadows of the final stage -- the electoral platform -- were already appearing last year when Jones spoke of running "American Dream candidates" in future political campaigns.

Other fundamental mechanisms of democracy promotion outside the seven steps are clear in the 99% Spring movement. The network-structure of progressive organizations working towards common goals has already been discussed at length in this article, but it is important to point out that the absorbing of radical figures into the moderate complex is also at work here. One such figure in question is Rebuild the Dream's organizing director, Caroline Murray, who had previously been the executive director of the Alliance to Develop Power (ADP). Under Murray, ADP had directly confronted the question of property by turning apartment complexes into sustainable housing cooperatives and localized the surrounding economic structures through implementing worker-controlled businesses, community centers, and food sources. It is heartening that in a recent interview, Murray acknowledged "It is one thing to win policies and that of course is critically important. But what we really need to be thinking about is fundamental restructuring of the systems that perpetuate inequity. We need to be talking and taking action in order to reshape and change the dynamics of power." (30) But one has to wonder just how far these aspirations will go working through the channels of Rebuild the Dream.

It was the financial crisis that truly woke people up to the sentiment Murray has communicated, and it served to open the space for both the Occupy movement and this blossoming 99% Spring. The system, however, also stood to benefit from capitalism's latest crisis in ways beyond the rounds of bailouts. To quote David Harvey again, "Financial crises serve to rationalise the irrationalities of capitalism. They typically lead to new configurations, new models of development, new spheres of investment and new forms of class power." (31) It is easy to understand why, then, certain segments of the elite class would tolerate limited opposition to their dominance.

As tempting as it may be, the existence of these co-option tactics should not be viewed solely in negative terms. They do serve as a validation of the intrinsic power of the a unified people calling for a goal, and it shows that even though true change has yet to have been seen, social change movements have the capability to push capitalism to a place where it is forced to violate many of its own rules to maintain its existence. The worrisome factor is that the moderate reforms that are implemented are so often confused with victory, and movements lapse into complacency as they are consumed into the wider order. Benevolent Keynesianism can be, and always has been, rolled back in times of boom to allow rampant corporate growth, only to return again and again with things veer for the worst. It is in this context that properly taxing corporations and the mega-rich is an important step forward in changing the balance of society, but it cannot be identified as an end goal for social movements that legitimately want to change the status quo and realize true democratic practices.


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1.  Stuart Ewen, Captains of Consciousness: Advertising and the Social Roots of Consumer Culture (Basic Books, 2001), pg. 88.  (back)

2.  Ibid, pg. 27.  (back)

3.  Joan Roelofs, 'Foundations and Collaboration', Critical Sociology, Volume 33, Number 3, 2007, pg .502, cited in Michael Barker "Do Capitalists Fund Revolution? (Part 1 of 2)" Z Communications Tuesday, September 4th, 2007, http://www.zcommunications.org/do-capitalists-fund-revolutions-part-1-of-2-by-michael-barker (April 16th, 2012).  (back)

4.  David Harvey, The Enigma of Capital and the Crisis of Capitalism (Profile Books, Ltd., 2010) pgs. 30-31.  (back)

5.  Steve Horn, "MoveOn.Org and Friends Attempt to Co-Opt Occupy Wall Street Movement" Truthout Tuesday, October 11th, 2011, http://truth-out.org/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=3870:moveonorg-and-friends-attempt-to-coopt-occupy-wall-street-movement (April 16th, 2012).  (back)

6.  The Insider, "99 Percent Spring: the Latest MoveOn Front for the Democratic Party" CounterPunch March 16-18th, 2012, http://www.counterpunch.org/2012/03/16/99-percent-spring-the-latest-moveon-front-for-the-democratic-party/ (April 17th, 2012).  (back)

7. The Insider "99 Percent Spring."  (back)

8.  Ford Foundation grant: National People's Action (2011) http://www.fordfoundation.org/grants/grantdetails?grantid=114864 (April 16th, 2012). 10.  (back)

9.  "The 99% Spring: Trainer Notes" http://s3.moveon.org/pdfs/99%20spring%20trainer%20notes%20final.pdf (April 17th, 2012).  (back)

10.  Thomas L. Friedman, "Capitalism, Version 2012" The New York Times March 13th, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/14/opinion/friedman-capitalism-version-2012.html?_r=1 (April 15th, 2012).  (back)

11.  Van Jones, "The 99% for the 100%: The Case for Deep Patriotism" The Nation April 2nd, 2012 http://www.thenation.com/article/167172/99-percent-100-percent-case-deep-patriotism (April 15th, 2012).  (back)

12.  Joan Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism (State University of New York Press, 2004), pgs. 58-59.  (back)

13.  Louis Proycet, "The Early Days of The Nation Magazine," Swans Commentary, November 17th, 2008, http://www.swans.com/library/art14/lproy50.html (April 16th, 2012).  (back)

14.  The Insider, "99 Percent Spring."  (back)

15.  "The American Dream, Reloaded," Yes Magazine, July 20th, 2011, http://www.yesmagazine.org/people-power/the-american-dream-reloaded. (April 15th, 2012) It should be noted that Yes Magazine carries on their website the endorsement of Van Jones.  (back)

16.  Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy pg. 96.  (back)

17.  Ibid., pg. 135.  (back)

18.  Stanley Kurtz, "Inside Obama's Acorn," The National Review, May 29th, 2008, http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/224610/inside-obamas-acorn/stanley-kurtz?pg=1 (April 16th, 2012).  (back)

19.  "NLRB Denies Dallas ACORN's Appeal of IWW Charges" Industrial Workers of the World, June 5th, 2005, http://www.iww.org/en/history/campaigns/acorn/46 (April 12th, 2012).  (back)

20.  G. William Domhoff, "The Ford Foundation in the Inner City: Forging an Alliance with Neighborhood Activists" Who Rules America? September 2005, http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/local/ford_foundation.html (April 12th, 2012).  (back)

21.  William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony (Cambridge University Press, 1996).  (back)

22.  Michelle Nichols, "Adbusters Calls For Occupy Wall Street To Demand G20 Impose 'Robin Hood' Tax," Huffington Post, October 24th, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/24/occupy-wall-street-g20_n_1028843.html (April 15th, 2012).  (back)

23.  Edmund Berger, "Hard Questions for the Left: Democracy or 'Smart Globalization'," Dissident Voice, May 14th, 2011, http://dissidentvoice.org/2011/05/hard-questions-for-the-left/ (April 16th, 2012).  (back)

24.  Ibid.  (back)

25.  Dudley Dillard, The Economics of John Maynard Keynes: The Theory of a Monetary Economy (Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1948), pg. 319.  (back)

26.  See my "Strange Contours: Resistance and the Manipulation of People Power," Dissident Voice, December 21st, 2012, http://dissidentvoice.org/2011/12/strange-contours-resistance-and-the-manipulation-of-people-power/ ; and "Intervention Mentality and the Spectacle of Joseph Kony" April 14th, 2012 http://dissidentvoice.org/2012/04/intervention-mentality-and-the-spectacle-of-joseph-kony/.  (back)

27.  Cass R. Sunstein, The Second Bill of Rights: FDR's Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever (Basic Books, 2004), pg. 40.  (back)

28.  John Hood, Investor Politics: The New Force That Will Transform American Business, Government, & Politics in the Twenty-First Century Templeton Foundation Press, 2001pg. 95.  (back)

29.  Roelofs, Foundations and Public Policy pg. 209.  (back)

30.  Steve Dubb, "Interview of Caroline Murray" Community-Wealth.org, March 2012, http://community-wealth.org/_pdfs/interviews/interview-murray.pdf (April 16th, 2012).  (back)

31.  Harvey, The Enigma of Capital pg. 11.  (back)


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Published April 23, 2012