While pundits are busy commenting on the aberrant, marginalized, hippie-like occupiers of Wall Street, I wonder what took so long? Why did it not happen earlier? And why is it that, even now, many middle class people have not joined the movement?
Obama acknowledged the legitimate grievances behind the protests, but the media is still characterizing the campaign as the fringe, just as it once labeled Vietnam War protesters as the counter culture.
Fortunately, the movement is spreading, to London, Hong Kong, and beyond. It is the voice of a generation, robbed of all opportunity because a few in the elite class gambled its future away in return for obscene salaries and bonuses.
I see parallels in the hunger strikes of Anna Hazare and the international protests against greedy financiers. It was only a month ago that in these very pages I decried corruption at the highest levels of American industry, commerce, and politics and wondered why Americans were not holding hunger strikes against large-scale corruption in their own land, perpetrated by Wall Street and Washington. Now, suddenly, almost as if the protesters read my column and went to work, a movement has emerged, one that I hope will bear a lasting influence on our planet.
Anna Hazare has hit a nerve in the world’s collective psyche. He has made international headlines because the time has come to wrest power away from a select few and grant it to the many. Some people have chosen to interpret Hazare’s campaign as being only against small time crooks in the government but I think his hunger strikes constitute a call for participatory democracies all over the world. While the planet literally burns because of climate change, and millions lose their retirements and jobs, financiers and CEOs shamelessly continue to plunder our futures to sustain their lavish lifestyles, without an iota of conscience or morality.
No wonder then that there is a synchronicity between the two campaigns.
As Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, asserted, it all started with the Arab Spring. It was not in America, the alleged forbearer of democracy, that the populace rose against exploitation, but in Egypt and Syria. Almost simultaneously, Hazare started his hunger strikes to make government more accountable. Then protesters took to Wall Street. As if people all over the world wanted a say in the machinations of the military industrial governmental complex.
I suspect Indians might be on both sides of this moral divide. Even as Indians at home hail Hazare as their hero and march against their government, they do not march against Dalal Street. Or Wall Street. After all, who do you think invented the elaborate credit default swaps and hedging strategies? Who is good enough at math to be able to devise complex trading instruments? There surely are more than a few Indian MBAs out of Harvard and Wharton who, blinded by the elegance of the computer simulation models they built, who unwittingly pushed the world economy to the brink of collapse.
Indian youth, I suspect, have a complicated relationship with financiers and corporate types. Thanks to India’s educational factories producing degrees and diplomas, highly skilled workers are churned out year after year to feed the global market in high tech jobs. Indians are no longer looking from the outside in, but rather occupying the CEO’s chair or the banker’s office. Many Indians, therefore, find no sympathy for protesters on Wall Street.
With our history of caste and class schisms, Indians are particularly susceptible to the lure of money and status. Many of us appreciate our new-found wealth and worship the high tech industries that have given it to us. Bill Gates has probably been installed in the pantheon of Indian gods and is being offered flowers and incense every morning! And if Hazare had started campaigning against corrupt bankers or industrialists, I suspect he may not have mustered any support at home.
But we should care, because there still exists a huge underclass, both in India and the United States. Because peasants in India are being driven out of their tribal lands or their hutments to make way for industries and industrialists. Because the poor in the United States are crammed into superdomes and ignored in the event of natural disasters. We should care because we want to live in an egalitarian society, not one in which kings eat off silver gravy trains while peons wave fans.
I hope that the occupiers of Wall Street are not dismissed as riff raff and sent home. I hope the movement gathers momentum, grows, and spreads across America, just as Vietnam protests did 50 years ago, until politicians could no longer ignore public opinion. I hope that the protesters can spell out a real political agenda with real demands. I hope that politicians in the Democratic Party can put their support behind the campaign. After all, it is the only antidote to the Tea Party movement we have got. And unlike the Tea Party, which was surreptitiously funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, Occupy Wall Street is a truly grass roots movement, born outside of the Beltway.
Imagine what would have happened if people had occupied Wall Street during the financial meltdown of 2008! Perhaps the bailouts that the banks received would have been made contingent upon reducing CEO compensation packages. Perhaps financial institutions would have been nationalized. Perhaps Obama would not have appointed Tim Geithner, and Ben Bernanke to his economic team.
Among the demands the movement must make is a call for truly universal health care. Or, at least, a demand to preserve Obamacare, whose provisions do not start taking effect until 2014. The second should be a plan to pare down nauseatingly large CEO compensation packages. A third should be a demand to create some sort of a Marshall Plan to trigger economic activity.
I wish I could organize a women’s protest on Wall Street. I wish I could lend my voice to the movement. Perhaps I will.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. Visit www.saritasarvate.com