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  • Occupy Wall Street:Return of a Repressed Res-Publica
  • Wendy Brown (bio)

For three decades, American populist politics have been largely reactionary, instigated and instrumentalized by monied interests. What finally triggered this left revolt against neoliberal deregulation and corporately bought democracy? Why didn't it erupt in 2008 when the government bailed out teetering investment banks but not their victims-those holding subprime mortgages or gutted retirement funds? Why not in 2009 when gigantic bonuses were handed around to the very investment bankers who had crashed the system with their derivatives games? Why not in spring 2011 when the Supreme Court overturned limits on corporate contributions to Political Action Committees (permitting corporations to flood the electoral process) and then essentially killed off class-action lawsuits (workers' and consumers' main line of defense against corporate fraud and abuse)? Why not at any point in the last decade as mass access to higher education collapsed, infrastructure rotted, real income for the middle class plummeted, health care costs skyrocketed, while corporations, banks and the wealthy feathered their nests?

The OWS events this fall are the twin gifts of, on the one hand, the inspirational Arab Spring and, on the other, the colossal failure of the Obama presidency to place even a light rein on neoliberal de-regulation or install a modest interval of separation between Wall Street and Washington. If the first was an obvious trigger, the second should not be minimized: Had any of the promised Obama "hope" been substantially realized—early withdrawal from Iraq war, closing Guantanamo, stimulating economic recovery with jobs creation, repealing the Bush tax cuts, tightening regulations on finance capital, expanding access to affordable higher education, reining in health care costs—many Occupy Wall Streeters, especially the young, might have remained wedded to the electoral political process that engaged them so intensely just three years ago.

In addition to the galvanizing effects of the Arab Spring and the Obama Autumn, almost half a decade of recession fueled the fire with staggering unemployment (25% among recent college graduates), deteriorating wages, vanishing pensions, home foreclosures, scandalous rates of poverty and homelessness (1 in 5 children in the US are born into poverty) and accelerated destruction of public goods and services already slimmed by two decades of neoliberal defunding and privatization. Together these effects pooled the predicaments of the poor and the middle class, the young and the old, the working and the under- and unemployed: all are sacrificed as capital is propped, bailed, and continues to feast. Put another way, what makes this era unique is the unprecedented mutual identification among working middle class families carrying under-water mortgages, unemployed youth carrying under-water college loan debt, laid-off factory workers facing contracting unemployment benefits, public workers forced to shoulder ever growing contributions to their own "benefits" or losing long-promised pensions, and skilled and unskilled workers—from pre-school teachers to airline pilots—whose salaries for full-time work cannot lift their families above poverty level.

If neoliberal economic policies eliminating state benefits and public goods while plumping the nests of the rich have paradoxically joined the fates of heretofore diverse and often divided generations, job sectors, races and classes, neoliberal political policies aimed at breaking social solidarities have similarly paved the road for broad-based democratic uprising. Recent years have seen a plethora of state and federal court decisions assaulting the organized power of unions, consumers, welfare recipients, seniors, public sector workers, and the electorate as a whole. From AT&T Mobility v. Concepion (the Supreme Court decision permitting corporations to avoid class action litigation) to State of Wisconsin v. Fitzgerald et al (the Wisconsin court decision upholding a state law gutting the collective bargaining power of public unions), the last decade has seen the steady ratification and implementation of Margaret Thatcher's iteration of the neoliberal political ideal—"there is no such thing as society, only individual men and women ...."1 Yet paradoxically or perhaps (for those who still believe in it) dialectically, this very demolition of organized interest group power—combined with scandalous growth in income inequality, eye-popping wealth at the top and dismantling of public goods—has facilitated a new populist political consciousness. Out...