Last week, a few days before Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer, a friend posted a critique of the Occupy Wall Street protesters on her facebook page, in which she basically slammed the protesters for preaching the gospel of anti-corporatism all the while plunking out tweets and status updates from their Apple computers. My friend was irritated by the irony: “If you want to change the system,” she wrote, “analyze first the way you live within it.”
I could see her point, but I found myself defending the protesters because they were making me happy. I loved seeing the creative signs (You Know Things Are Messed Up When Librarians Start Marching), reading about the Human Microphone, and watching as the mainstream media seemed forced against its will to cover the movement.
Then, last Wednesday, October 5th, two startling things happened. First, New York unions joined the protesters and swelled their numbers into the many thousands. Hundreds of new organizations around the world covered the actions and thousands of news articles about the protests appeared on radio, television, newspapers, and online. On the same day it was announced that legendary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had died, and Apple devotees around the country mourned his passing on facebook and Twitter and by leaving flowers at the door of Apple stores. Tweets from Occupy Wall Streeters supporters around the globe were mix of “RIP Steve Jobs” and “Occupy Together.”
How can we make sense of these outpourings of spontaneous action, in protesting and in mourning, that have gripped Americans over the last week?
Occupy Wall Street seems to have the most obvious political significance of the two, though the media are struggling to explain it. The media messages about the protests can be boiled down into three basic narratives:
1) The movement has no message. This is a fascinating claim because in the age of instant communication I am not sure that any movement has been able to get its message out more quickly or more clearly. The message is that 99% of Americans have far too little of the nation’s wealth. (see Annie Lowrey, here, from Slate, examining the truth behind this claim). The message is Make Jobs, Not War on Middle, Working Class and Poor. The message is If I Had a Job I Would Not Be Here. The message is A Better World is Possible. True, the movement does not have a list of answerable demands. But then again, while many have criticized the movement for not having any clear objectives, others have praised it for staying open and flexible.
2) The movement is the left wing answer to the Tea Party. I find this narrative somewhat more plausible. There is something spontaneous, angry, funny, and absurd about the protests that bears some similarities to Tea Party protests (there are even some misspellings in the hand made signs—though not as many). On the other hand, there is little evidence (so far) that big money is bankrolling the occupiers, as the Koch brothers and other have bankrolled the Tea Party. In addition, the Occupy Wall Street movement is targeted at the financial system and not the government. The message, in fact, is that the financial system has largely taken control of the government.
3) The movement is the beginning of a new, legitimate movement on the left. This is the narrative by which I am the most persuaded. While I liked the movement immediately, I liked it even more when union activists started supporting the New York protesters with blankets and food. My admiration increased again when union activists and members started marching with the protestors last Wednesday.
One of the best things about the movement so far is its inclusivity. While political scientists, economists, and Marxist theorists debate who is or who is not working class (I am partial to Michael Zweig’s definition which finds about 66% of us to be working class), I feel included in the OWS protests even though I am an English professor at a prestigious university married to another white collar professional. Because even though my husband and I make a better living than most, we are still solidly in the 99%.
As a result, Occupy Wall Street taps into the rage and frustration that I feel because the Pittsburgh school budget was cut and my son’s bus stop was moved to one of the most dangerous intersections in my neighborhood. It taps into the rage and frustration that I feel when the students that I teach at Carnegie Mellon University can’t find jobs after they graduate while they are tens of thousand of dollars in debt. It taps into the rage and frustration I feel when my friends in the labor movement cannot (yet) post information about basic workers rights on bulletin boards in the workplace. It taps into the rage and frustration I feel when wages, rights, and benefits of union members in Wisconsin, Ohio, and dozens of other states are attacked. It taps into the rage and frustration that I feel knowing how many immigrant families in Alabama are struggling to stay together since the repressive anti-immigrant laws recently passed are now being enforced.
So what does all of this have to do with Steve Jobs? Whose side would he be on? Since his death many have written about his company’s dreadful labor practices, his relative lack of philanthropy, and his autocratic personality. Nonetheless, when I heard the news last week that he had died I felt like I had lost someone who had meant something to me. I even wondered if Apple products and advertising keywords, like “Think Different” and “Magical” and “Revolutionary” had inspired my activism and critical analyses over the years. I used an Apple computer to make flyers for rallies and strikes when I was a graduate student/union activist. I used an Apple computer to write my dissertation. I used an Apple computer to store and share pictures of my children. I am using an Apple computer to write this post.
If nothing else, we can acknowledge that Jobs helped provide powerful new tools, and for many a new sense of empowerment, for activism. Thanks to Steve Jobs and thousands of ordinary people—all 99% of us across the country and around the globe—maybe the revolution won’t be televised. But it will be tweeted.
Kathy M. Newman