How We Got Here by Katie Peyton

An part one of a three part series, Katie Peyton discusses the origins of the Occupy movement in The Occupy Handbook.

Peanut Underground Savannah Spirit Occupy 1 Body

Photo by Savannah Spirit, 2011.

Have you heard about Libertatia? I first encountered the story in William S. Burroughs’s Cities of the Red Night. Burroughs opens the trilogy by stating that “the liberal principles embodied in the French and American revolutions and later in the liberal revolutions of 1848 had already been codified and put into practice by pirate communes a hundred years earlier.”

He is talking about the pirate community founded by Captain Mission along the Madagascar coast. Quoting Under the Black Flag, by Don C. Seitz, Burroughs describes the principles of Libertatia. The citizens were to live “in strict harmony among themselves;” even so, he continues, “a misplaced society would adjudge them still as pirates. Self-preservation, therefore, and not a cruel disposition, compelled them to declare war on all nations who should close their ports to them.”

The ruling principles of one of these communities were called the Articles. According to Burroughs, The Articles state, among other things:

All decisions with regard to the colony to be submitted to vote by the colonists; the abolition of slavery for any reason including debt; the abolition of the death penalty; and freedom to follow any religious beliefs or practices without sanction or molestation.

One thing the Occupy movement has demonstrated is how many people identify themselves as outsiders. Students and activists as well as veterans and the elderly, the homeless, and even young college graduates who couldn’t find jobs—in the fall of 2011, they gathered in anarchist leaderless communities looking for a different American dream. Artists were there, and writers, hosting a marathon reading of Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, publishing compilations of poetry and staging constant and impromptu musical performances (Jeff Mangum, Rufus Wainwright, Sean Lennon, and Pete Seeger all played in Zuccotti Park).

On the evening of October 7, 2011, over a hundred artists converged on 23 Wall Street, the original JP Morgan bank. They flew in from across the country and around the world in a rapid creative response to the protests that had begun down the street. That night I slept in a tent inside a building fewer than 100 feet from the center of global commerce, the New York Stock Exchange, and the birthplace of the nation, Federal Hall, where George Washington was sworn in and the location of the first United States Congress. It was the original JP Morgan building, and the original vaults were located downstairs, musty but still intact.

We talked late into the night, in the triangle of government and commerce, staying up making art, playing music, silk-screening T-shirts for the next day. It was a temporary autonomous zone under the soaring 30 foot ceilings of a building that was at one time the most important bank in the world, and for the next two weeks, we called it home.

The police were outside and they had other words for us: Trojan Horse. There was a rumor that we were hiding a small army of protesters in the arena-like shell, which would take to the streets en masse on opening night. But while the founding members of Occupy would come and go, and while a few artists living in the park had joined our exhibition and created work, the park itself had food, music, and a library. Since the weather was still warm, they didn’t need shelter. I remember the night before the opening. Justin Wedes, one of the original members of Occupy Wall Street, had a laptop set up in the corner, and we took a picture of him, nervously giggling and holding up a computer screen with a map of the US, showing an expanding rash of red pinpoints. The markers represented other cities where tiny protests were springing up: Occupy Oakland, Occupy Portland, Occupy Anchorage. For as much as everyone was finding it difficult to believe, this was really happening.

Our families wondered, Why were we there? I didn’t have good answers. I knew enough to know it didn’t all make sense to me. It was people speaking out against a broken system. For a while, that was enough.

In The Occupy Handbook, Janet Byrne has assembled a formidable roster of writers, running the gamut from former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker to Ariel Dorfman to David Graeber. That these three are men does represent the trend of the collection, partially owing to the male-dominated character of field of finance. However, Byrne has worked hard to assemble a sweeping, snapping, too smart to fail operation, and though I began with skepticism, I found myself reading with increasing energy.

It is divided into three sections: “How We Got Here,” “Where We Are Now,” and “Solutions.”

Michael Lewis opens the book, and contributes twice. In the first essay, he pens a satirical letter from the Stategy Committee to the Upper Ones, calling on them to tighten the ranks, taking as their model the modern Greeks: “Ordinary Greeks seldom harass their rich, for the simple reason they have no idea where to find them. To a member of the Greek Lower 99, a Greek Upper One is as good as invisible. He pays no taxes, lives no place, and bears no relationship to his fellow citizens.” The ordinary Greek has no worries about their Uppers beyond that “he will cease to pay the occasional visit.”

Lewis even proposes an award for the Upper One best exemplifying this, and he has already identified the first recipient: Jeff Bezos. “His private rocketship may have exploded before it reached outer space. But before it did, it sent back to Earth the message we hope to convey: ‘We’re outta here!’”

From a funny and springy beginning, the book moves smoothly into a discussion of precedents: other protest movements in America’s history.

Michael Hiltzik’s “The 5 Percent” describes how a group of senior citizens protested the “the concentration of wealth in a privileged class and society’s indifference to the neediest … seven million Americans sixty-five and older, uniquely afflicted by the Great Depression and uniquely underserved by the nascent recovery emerging under Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.” What Michael Hiltzik points out is that these protests, which grew into the Townsend Movement, managed to work within the existing political system. Our current Social Security system is a response to those demands.

Several more excellent analogies are touched on in subsequent essays. The Great Rail Strike of 1877, Phillip Dray writes, was technically a failure, because the workers failed to achieve any of their objectives. Yet American workers gained a sense of their own strength. “They had shown that even the vast and powerful railroads were vulnerable. With the weapon of the strike, the workers held power; they could shut the railroads—and the country—down.” On February 1, 1960, this weapon would be used by four students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College who sat down at the “all-white” section of the Woolworth’s lunch counter Greensboro, North Carolina, and simply refused to leave. The next day, they returned with 16 more students and sat at the counter. These peaceful student protests spread locally at first, then moved quickly across the South. Though other, formal civil rights organizations had been attempting to effect change, they did not have the emotional energy and power that the young people had. The existing protest structure watched as the student movement developed organically, “pav[ing] the way for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

Last year, I asked a friend whose office overlooked Zuccotti Park what he thought of the protesters, and he was dismissive. “I don’t notice them,” he said, then laughed. “They sleep all day anyway.” It was a funny joke, perhaps, but did it also mask a fear? Maybe no one wanted to take them seriously, but they weren’t, as everyone expected, just going away. I wanted to know why.

Now we get to it. What is the protest of our generation? The next few essays explains that the answer lies in the current system of finance, which we are told is too complicated to understand. This system that constitutes 1/3 of our total economy but provides no tangible goods and services. Is it really too complicated for all but the bankers to understand, and regulate? And if it is too complicated, does it have to be? Finally, how did it get so big, and what value does it provide?

Vast parts of the modern banking system are predicated on the fact that the general population will not take the time to try to understand what is going on. It has been communicated to us that it is simultaneously too boring and too complicated. When we ask for honest answers, we are given convoluted dumps of information, acronyms like CDOs and CMOs and CBOs. We go into overload. Trust us, they say, as we peer at strings of numbers and graphs labeled with terms that we don’t understand. You don’t even want to try to figure out what we do all day.

Of course this begs a question, elucidated in Gillian Tett’s brilliantly clear essay: is an operation that is “too big to fail” also “too big to manage?” The general population, she explains, has been told that finance is best left to “experts,” the same people who assured them, until 2007, that what they did was “wonderfully beneficial” to the rest of the nation.

As the top 1% of earners “saw its real income nearly quadruple between 1979 and 2007,” according to Paul Krugman and Robin Wells, ordinary Americans saw only “modest gains.” One reason the widening gap did not draw more attention, Bethany McLean explains, was because banks were making lending more accessible than ever. A few giant lies were propagated. One was that the lending standards, and especially the subprime lending standards, were being relaxed to allow more Americans to fulfill the American Dream of owning a home.

But 80% of those loans were not purchase mortgages. On the contrary, they were refinances, additional mortgages, endangering the homes people already owned in order to pay the bills that their salaries were not covering. McLean discovers that only 10-13% of subprime mortgages went to Americans buying their first home. Though most Americans’ salaries were stagnating, their homes appeared to be an expanding bank account. They were sinking slowly underwater, and they didn’t know it.

My banker friends used to say, “It’s about responsibility. They shouldn’t have borrowed the money if they couldn’t pay it back.” At the time, feeling secure myself, with a mortgage that my household could have easily paid back at any time, I agreed. Gosh, it did all seem a little bit unfair. But isn’t everyone equally capable of reading the fine print? So people made irresponsible decisions. Why should Wall Street pay for the mistakes of Main Street? Uninspected, this was how it felt to many New Yorkers. But a lot has come to light since 2008.

First, the banking system was telling those same people that though their salaries were not keeping pace, they had the equity in their homes. Can you really blame them for not seeing the deception? They were not financial experts. They were firemen, teachers, bartenders, interior designers. Doctors, dentists, veterinarians. The only ones who “should” have known better, one could argue, are the bankers. But they were not the ones who took the fall. In fact, they were they ones who profited. Wait a minute.

Upton Sinclair said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

If you read one essay, read John Cassidy’s “What Good is Wall Street.” Cassidy is a writer at the New Yorker and Fortune, and he cites conversations with heavy hitters of finance, including Vikram Pandit (Citigroup CEO), John Mack (chairman of Morgan Stanley), and Paul Wooley (the London School of Economics).

He covers ground quickly, but here are a few figures. The financial sector has grown from 1/7 of the economy 25 years ago, to 1/3 of the economy in 2006. This is roughly the same period cited above when the richest of the rich quadrupled their earnings. You can sense the correlation, but how exactly does that work?

Cassidy cites Lord Adair Turner, Chairman of Britain’s Financial Services Authority, in his essay “What Do Banks Do?” to explain the concept of “rents.” Banks do provide some real services (for example, lending money to small business to facilitate their growth). But rents, Cassidy explains, are activities that “generated revenues and profits without delivering anything of real worth.” He quotes Turner: “It is possible for financial activity to extract rents from the economy rather than deliver economic value.” Cassidy explains the uproar this piece created. The implication, he extrapolates, was that “many people in the City and on Wall Street are the financial equivalents of slumlords or toll collectors in pin-striped suits. If they retired to their beaches en masse, the rest of the economy would be fine, or healthier.”

Wooley explains his view to Cassidy with a simple analogy. “Why on earth should finance be the biggest and most highly paid industry, when it’s just a utility, like sewer or gas?” Wooley asks Cassidy. “It’s like a cancer growing to infinite size, until it takes over the entire body.”

If you want to understand how we got into this mess, this single book will provide a foothold so you can better understand the complex dynamic of the current global economy. In language that is neat and surprisingly clear, this compendium manages to break down complicated ideas into simple terms.

I wanted to know, why on earth was I there? What did I have to gain from Occupy Wall Street? What did they even stand for?

I wanted to be present for my time. I wanted to understand what it was that so many people were drawn to. I knew something was wrong. There was no comprehensive explanation. All we could agree on was that something was wrong. I wanted to understand what it was.

This book is that explanation.

It was said that the movement’s lack of a coherent message was what made it able to survive. In The Occupy Handbook, Byrne was able to assemble a constellation of expert opinions ranging from history to economics to the arts. It is a handbook in the sense it provides a background broad and deep enough to join the debate. David Graeber said in an interview with Artforum editor Michelle Kuo: “I’ve come to realize that whoever is running this system is obsessed with winning the conceptual war—much more so, in fact, than with actual economic viability. Given the choice between an option that makes capitalism seem like the only possible system and an option that actually makes capitalism a more viable long-term system, they always choose the former.”

In Part 2, Katie Peyton will cover “Where We Are Now?”

The Occupy Handbook is available now from Back Bay Books.

Katie Peyton is a New York-based writer and artist. She is a cofounder of Peanut Underground Art Projects, a laboratory for creative conspiracy and promotion of collaboration between the arts. She is currently an MFA candidate at the New School in Fiction.

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