A Movement Too Big to Fail

Posted on Oct 17, 2011

By Chris Hedges

There is no danger that the protesters who have occupied squares, parks and
plazas across the nation in defiance of the corporate state will be co-opted by
the Democratic Party or groups like MoveOn. The faux liberal reformers, whose
abject failure to stand up for the rights of the poor and the working class,
have signed on to this movement because they fear becoming irrelevant. Union
leaders, who pull down salaries five times that of the rank and file as they
bargain away rights and benefits, know the foundations are shaking. So do
Democratic politicians from Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi. So do the array of
“liberal” groups and institutions, including the press, that have worked to
funnel discontented voters back into the swamp of electoral politics and mocked
those who called for profound structural reform.

Resistance, real resistance, to the corporate state was displayed when a
couple of thousand protesters, clutching mops and brooms, early Friday morning
forced the owners of Zuccotti Park and the New York City police to back down
from a proposed attempt to expel them in order to “clean” the premises. These
protesters in that one glorious moment did what the traditional “liberal”
establishment has steadily refused to do—fight back. And it was deeply moving to
watch the corporate rats scamper back to their holes on Wall Street. It lent a
whole new meaning to the phrase “too big to fail.”

Tinkering with the corporate state will not work. We will either be plunged
into neo-feudalism and environmental catastrophe or we will wrest power from
corporate hands. This radical message, one that demands a reversal of the
corporate coup, is one the power elite, including the liberal class, is
desperately trying to thwart. But the liberal class has no credibility left. It
collaborated with corporate lobbyists to neglect the rights of tens of millions
of Americans, as well as the innocents in our imperial wars. The best that
liberals can do is sheepishly pretend this is what they wanted all along. Groups
such as MoveOn and organized labor will find themselves without a constituency
unless they at least pay lip service to the protests. The Teamsters’ arrival
Friday morning to help defend the park signaled an infusion of this new
radicalism into moribund unions rather than a co-opting of the protest movement
by the traditional liberal establishment. The union bosses, in short, had no

The Occupy Wall Street movement, like all radical movements, has obliterated
the narrow political parameters. It proposes something new. It will not make
concessions with corrupt systems of corporate power. It holds fast to moral
imperatives regardless of the cost. It confronts authority out of a sense of
responsibility. It is not interested in formal positions of power. It is not
seeking office. It is not trying to get people to vote. It has no resources. It
can’t carry suitcases of money to congressional offices or run millions of
dollars of advertisements. All it can do is ask us to use our bodies and voices,
often at personal risk, to fight back. It has no other way of defying the
corporate state. This rebellion creates a real community instead of a managed or
virtual one. It affirms our dignity. It permits us to become free and
independent human beings.

Martin Luther King was repeatedly betrayed by liberal supporters, especially
when he began to challenge economic forms of discrimination, which demanded that
liberals, rather than simply white Southern racists, begin to make sacrifices.
King too was a radical. He would not compromise on nonviolence, racism or
justice. He understood that movements—such as the Liberty Party, which fought
slavery, the suffragists, who fought for women’s rights, the labor movement and
the civil rights movement—have always been the true correctives in American
democracy. None of those movements achieved formal political power. But by
holding fast to moral imperatives they made the powerful fear them. King knew
that racial equality was impossible without economic justice and an end to
militarism. And he had no intention of ceding to the demands of the liberal
establishment that called on him to be calm and patient.

“For years, I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions in
the South, a little change here, a little change there,” King said shortly
before he was assassinated. “Now I feel quite differently. I think you’ve got to
have a reconstruction of the entire system, a revolution of values.”

King was killed in 1968 when he was in Memphis to support a strike by
sanitation workers. By then he had begun to say that his dream, the one that the
corporate state has frozen into a few safe clichés from his 1963 speech in
Washington, had turned into a nightmare. King called at the end of his life for
massive federal funds to rebuild inner cities, what he called “a radical
redistribution of economic and political power,” a complete restructuring of
“the architecture of American society.” He grasped that the inequities of
capitalism had become the instrument by which the poor would always remain

“Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism,” King said, “but there
must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s

On the eve of King’s murder he was preparing to organize a poor people’s
march on Washington, D.C., designed to cause “major, massive dislocations,” a
nonviolent demand by the poor, including the white underclass, for a system of
economic equality. It would be 43 years before his vision was realized by an
eclectic group of protesters who gathered before the gates of Wall Street.

The truth of America is understood only when you listen to voices in our
impoverished rural enclaves, prisons and the urban slums, when you hear the
words of our unemployed, those who have lost their homes or cannot pay their
medical bills, our elderly and our children, especially the quarter of the
nation’s children who depend on food stamps to eat, and all who are
marginalized. There is more reality expressed about the American experience by
the debt-burdened young men and women protesting in the parks than by all the
chatter of the well-paid pundits and experts that pollutes the airwaves.

What kind of nation is it that spends far more to kill enemy combatants and
Afghan and Iraqi civilians than it does to help its own citizens who live below
the poverty line? What kind of nation is it that permits corporations to hold
sick children hostage while their parents frantically bankrupt themselves to
save their sons and daughters? What kind of nation is it that tosses its
mentally ill onto urban heating grates? What kind of nation is it that abandons
its unemployed while it loots its treasury on behalf of speculators? What kind
of nation is it that ignores due process to torture and assassinate its own
citizens? What kind of nation is it that refuses to halt the destruction of the
ecosystem by the fossil fuel industry, dooming our children and our children’s

“America,” Langston Hughes wrote, “never was America to me.”

“The black vote mean [nothing],” the rapper Nas intones. “Who
you gunna elect/ Satan or Satan?/ In the hood nothing is changing/ We ain’t got
no choices.”

Or listen to hip-hop artist Talib Kweli: “Back in the ’60s, there was a big
push for black … politicians, and now we have more than we ever had before, but
our communities are so much worse. A lot of people died for us to vote, I’m
aware of that history, but these politicians are not in touch with people at
all. Politics is not the truth to me, it’s an illusion.”

The liberal class functions in a traditional, capitalist democracy as a
safety valve. It lets off enough steam to keep the system intact. It makes
piecemeal and incremental reform possible. This is what happened during the
Great Depression and the New Deal. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s greatest
achievement was that he saved capitalism. Liberals in a functioning capitalist
democracy are at the same time tasked with discrediting radicals, whether it is
King, especially after he denounced the war in Vietnam, or later Noam Chomsky or
Ralph Nader.

The stupidity of the corporate state is that it thought it could dispense
with the liberal class. It thought it could shut off that safety valve in order
to loot and pillage with no impediments. Corporate power forgot that the liberal
class, when it functions, gives legitimacy to the power elite. And the reduction
of the liberal class to silly courtiers, who have nothing to offer but empty
rhetoric, meant that the growing discontent found other mechanisms and outlets.
Liberals were reduced to stick figures, part of an elaborate pantomime, as they
acted in preordained roles to give legitimacy to meaningless and useless
political theater. But that game is over.

Human history has amply demonstrated that once those in positions of power
become redundant and impotent, yet retain the trappings and privileges of power,
they are brutally discarded. The liberal class, which insists on clinging to its
positions of privilege while at the same time refusing to play its traditional
role within the democratic state, has become a useless and despised appendage of
corporate power. And as the engines of corporate power pollute and poison the
ecosystem and propel us into a world where there will be only masters and serfs,
the liberal class, which serves no purpose in the new configuration, is being
abandoned and discarded by both the corporate state and radical dissidents. The
best it can do is attach itself meekly to the new political configuration rising
up to replace it.

An ineffectual liberal class means there is no hope of a correction or a
reversal through the formal mechanisms of power. It ensures that the frustration
and anger among the working and the middle class will find expression now in
these protests that lie outside the confines of democratic institutions and the
civilities of a liberal democracy. By emasculating the liberal class, which once
ensured that restive citizens could institute moderate reforms, the corporate
state has created a closed system defined by polarization, gridlock and
political charades. It has removed the veneer of virtue and goodness that the
liberal class offered to the power elite.

Liberal institutions, including the church, the press, the university, the
Democratic Party, the arts and labor unions, set the parameters for limited
self-criticism in a functioning democracy as well as small, incremental reforms.
The liberal class is permitted to decry the worst excesses of power and champion
basic human rights while at the same time endowing systems of power with a
morality and virtue it does not possess. Liberals posit themselves as the
conscience of the nation. They permit us, through their appeal to public virtues
and the public good, to see ourselves and our state as fundamentally good.

But the liberal class, by having refused to question the utopian promises of
unfettered capitalism and globalization and by condemning those who did, severed
itself from the roots of creative and bold thought, the only forces that could
have prevented the liberal class from merging completely with the power elite.
The liberal class, which at once was betrayed and betrayed itself, has no role
left to play in the battle between us and corporate dominance. All hope lies now
with those in the street.

Liberals lack the vision and fortitude to challenge dominant free market
ideologies. They have no ideological alternatives even as the Democratic Party
openly betrays every principle the liberal class claims to espouse, from
universal health care to an end to our permanent war economy to a demand for
quality and affordable public education to a return of civil liberties to a
demand for jobs and welfare of the working class. The corporate state forced the
liberal class to join in the nation’s death march that began with the presidency
of Ronald Reagan. Liberals such as Bill Clinton, for corporate money,
accelerated the dismantling of our manufacturing base, the gutting of our
regulatory agencies, the destruction of our social service programs and the
empowerment of speculators who have trashed our economy. The liberal class,
stripped of power, could only retreat into its atrophied institutions, where it
busied itself with the boutique activism of political correctness and embraced
positions it had previously condemned.

Russell Jacoby
writes: “The left once dismissed the market as exploitative; it now honors the
market as rational and humane. The left once disdained mass culture as
exploitative; now it celebrates it as rebellious. The left once honored
independent intellectuals as courageous; now it sneers at them as elitist. The
left once rejected pluralism as superficial; now it worships it as profound. We
are witnessing not simply a defeat of the left, but its conversion and perhaps

Hope in this age of bankrupt capitalism comes with the return of the language
of class conflict and rebellion, language that has been purged from the lexicon
of the liberal class, language that defines this new movement. This does not
mean we have to agree with Karl Marx, who advocated violence and whose worship
of the state as a utopian mechanism led to another form of enslavement of the
working class, but we have to learn again to speak in the vocabulary Marx
employed. We have to grasp, as Marx and Adam Smith did, that corporations are
not concerned with the common good. They exploit, pollute, impoverish, repress,
kill and lie to make money. They throw poor families out of homes, let the
uninsured die, wage useless wars to make profits, poison and pollute the
ecosystem, slash social assistance programs, gut public education, trash the
global economy, plunder the U.S. Treasury and crush all popular movements that
seek justice for working men and women. They worship money and power. And, as
Marx knew, unfettered capitalism is a revolutionary force that consumes greater
and greater numbers of human lives until it finally consumes itself. The dead zone in
the Gulf of Mexico is the perfect metaphor for the corporate state. It is part
of the same nightmare experienced in postindustrial mill towns of New England
and the abandoned steel mills of Ohio. It is a nightmare that Iraqis, Pakistanis
and Afghans, living in terror and mourning their dead, endure daily.

What took place early Friday morning in Zuccotti Park was the first salvo in
a long struggle for justice. It signaled a step backward by the corporate state
in the face of popular pressure. And it was carried out by ordinary men and
women who sleep at night on concrete, get soaked in rainstorms, eat donated food
and have nothing as weapons but their dignity, resilience and courage. It is
they, and they alone, who hold out the possibility of salvation. And if we join
them we might have a chance.

About MZR

I am a middle aged man trying to be the best person I can become, make a positive difference in our world, while trying to make sense of my life's journey.
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