SYNDICATED COLUMN: Quit Whining About Student Loans

Time for #OWS to Broaden Its Appeal

It has been 30 days since Occupy Wall Street began. The movement hasn’t shaken the world à la John Reed—not yet—but at one thousand occupations and counting, it can’t be ignored.

OWS has become so impressive, so fast, that it’s easy to forget its half-assed origin. No matter. The fact that the French Revolution was partly set off by the drunken ravings of the Marquis de Sade hardly reduces its importance.

Soon the Occupiers will have to face down a number of practical challenges. Like weather. Winter is coming. Unless they move indoors, campers at Occupy Minneapolis and Occupy Chicago will suffer attrition. But indoor space is private property. So confrontation with the police seems inevitable.

As I saw at STM/Occupy DC, there is an ideological split between revolutionaries and reformists. Typical of the reformists: This week OWSers urged sympathizers to close their accounts with big banks like Citibank and Bank of America and move their savings to credit unions and local savings and loans. If revolutionaries get their way, there will be no banks. Or one, owned by the people.

There is no immediate rush, nor should there be, to issue demands. The horizontal democracy format of the Occupy movement’s General Assemblies is less about getting things done than giving voices to the voiceless. For most citizens, who have been shut out of politics by the fake two-party democracy and the corporate media, simply talking and being heard is an act of liberation. At some point down the road, however, the movement will come to a big ideological fork: do they try to fix the system? Or tear it down?

The Occupiers don’t have to choose between reformism and revolution right away—but they can’t wait too long. You can’t make coherent demands until you can frame them into a consistent narrative. What you ultimately want determines what you ask for in the time being—and how you ask for it.

Trotsky argued for the issuance of “transitional demands” in order to expose the uncompromising, unjust and oppressive nature of the regime. Once again, an “epoch of progressive capitalism” (reformism, the New Deal, Great Society, etc.) has ended in the United States and the West. Thus “every serious demand of the proletariat” de facto goes further than what the capitalist class and its bourgeois state can concede. Transitional demands would be a logical starting point for an Occupy movement with a long-term revolutionary strategy.

Both routes entail risk. If the Occupiers choose the bold path of revolution, they will alienate moderates and liberals. The state will become more repressive.

On the other hand, reformism is naïve. The system is plainly broken beyond repair. Trying to push for legislation and working with establishment progressives will inevitably lead to cooption, absorption by big-money Democrats and their liberal allies, and irrelevance. (Just like what happened to the Tea Party, a populist movement subsumed into the GOP.)

Revolution means violence in the streets. Reform means failure, and the continued, slow-grinding violence by the corporate state: poverty, repression, injustice.

At this point, job one for the movement is to grow.

I don’t mean more Facebook pages or adding more cities. The day-to-day occupations on the ground need to get bigger, fast. The bigger the occupations, the harder they will be for the police to dislodge with violent tactics.

More than 42 percent of Americans do not work. Not even part-time. Tens of millions of people, with free time and nothing better to do, are watching the news about the Occupy movement. They aren’t yet participating. The Occupiers must convince many of these non-participants to join them.

Why aren’t more unemployed, underemployed, uninsured and generally screwed-over Americans joining the Occupy movement? The Los Angeles Times quoted Jeff Yeargain, who watched “with apparent contempt” 500 members of Occupy Orange County marching in Irvine. “They just want something for nothing,” Yeargain said.

I’m not surprised some people feel that way. Americans have a strong independent streak. We value self-reliance.

Still, there is something the protesters can and must do. They should make it clear that they aren’t just fighting for themselves. That they are fighting for EVERYONE in “the 99 percent” who aren’t represented by the two major parties and their compliant media.

OWSers must broaden their appeal.

Many of the Occupiers are in their 20s. The media often quotes them complaining about their student loans. They’re right to be angry. Young people were told they couldn’t get a job without a college degree; they were told they couldn’t get a degree without going into debt. Now there are no jobs, yet they still have to pay. They can’t even get out of them by declaring bankruptcy. They were lied to.

But it’s not about them. It’s about us.

The big point is: Education is a basic right.

Here is an example of how OWSers could broaden their appeal on one issue. Rather than complain about their own student loans, they ought to demand that everyone who ever took out and repaid a student loan get a rebate. Because it’s not just Gen Y who got hosed by America’s for-profit system of higher education. So did Gen X and the Boomers.

No one will support a movement of the selfish and self-interested.

The Freedom Riders won nobility points because they were white people willing to risk murder to fight for black people. Occupiers: stop whining about the fact that you can’t find a job. Fight for everyone’s right to earn a living.

The Occupy movement will expand when it appeals to tens of millions of ordinary people sitting in homes for which they can’t pay the rent or the mortgage. People with no jobs. Occupy needs those men and women to look at the Occupiers on TV and think to themselves: “They’re fighting for ME. Unless I join them, they might fail.”

The most pressing issues for most Americans are (the lack of) jobs, the (crappy) economy and growing income inequality. The foreclosure and eviction crisis is also huge. OWS has addressed these issues. But OWS has not yet made the case to the folks watching on TV that they’re focused like a laser.

It takes time to create jobs. But the jobless need help now. The Occupy movement should demand immediate government payments to the un- and underemployed. All foreclosures are immoral; all of them ruin neighborhoods. The Occupy movement should demand that everyone—not just victims of illegal foreclosures—be allowed back into their former homes, or given new ones.

For the first time in 40 years, we have the chance to change everything. To end gangster capitalism. To jail the corporate and political criminals who have ruined our lives. To save what’s left of our planet.

The movement must grow.

Nothing matters more.

(Ted Rall is the author of “The Anti-American Manifesto.” His website is



  • A good article, but ultimately useless. Why? Because you’re not getting at the heart of the real problem. The nature of humans raised in a capitalist system. Most people simply don’t understand anything else, which is why they’re asking for things like debt relief. They want their capitalism, they just want “the man” off their back. To me, it’s total horseshit. You cannot have revolution unless you have a fundamental disagreement with the current system, and a vision for that which would replace it. That would entail SO much sacrifice it would make the Civil War look tame by comparison. The country could collapse in such a revolution. Those are the stakes. So let’s be honest: people don’t want that. They just want their right to be an American consumer who has it all, the nice house, the nice car, the nice stuff, nice vacations, and so on. How can you have a revolution when those are the inherent underlying demands? Real freedom is hard, it requires sacrifice and the acceptance of uncertainty. Americans don’t want that, and they’re really not even capable of understanding what that means.

    I actually feel sorry for these protesters. They really don’t understand their own nature or how to reconcile it with their economic system. The funny thing is, I’m fairly fortunate. I’m not wealthy, but I am well-off. I would trade it all to see this system torn right to the fucking ground, and I mean that. These people have very little comparatively, yet they don’t want to tear down anything. It’s sad in the end, because Ted is right. This is a rare opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s a 100% guarantee that it will be squandered. Americans just aren’t capable of real change.

  • OWS better damn well issue demands. The solution is very simple. March on Washington and tell the bums in congress to reinstate Glass-Stegal, raise capital gains taxes to historical levels, eliminate the Federal Reserve as a private, independent agency, etc. Make it clear to them that if they don’t then they will no longer be in office to collect campaign contributions from the plutocrats paying them not to do these things.

    Marching around in Zucotti park to beg the Wall Street bankers to pretty please tone down their looting a bit may feel good, but it ultimately accomplishes nothing. Revolution may feel even better, but it accomplishes less than nothing. People may be stupid, but they’re generally smart enough to realize that. Promoting revolution is no way to grow the movement.

    Financial reform is going to be a tough sell, because it will eliminate consumer choice, albeit in a trivial sense. If banks can’t sell junk bonds based on questionable consumer loans, than people will no longer have the option of buying shit they don’t need at interest rates they can’t afford. They won’t have to pay for other people’s bad decisions or provide golden parachutes for the shysters who enabled those choices in a properly regulated financial system, but no one wants to give up power. In a revolution, people end up giving away all their power to revolutionary committees. If you’re lucky, you get Lenin. If you’re unlucky you get Stalin or Mao.

    People who can’t afford their mortgages generally bought more house than they can afford. If they weren’t happy with their “starter home,” what in God’s name makes you think that they’d throw petrol bombs for the privilege living in a Khrushchoba. Of course, such a privilege would only be granted after 18 months of filling out requisitions and/or fellating party members.

    The kids who are complaining about their student loans are at best people who paid to major in something that is not marketable. At worst they’re pissed off preppies who are upset that their calfskin didn’t buy them a ticket to the oppressor class. The market couldn’t force them to study engineering, or medicine, or even transfer to community college and learn plumbing. Are they really going to riot and agitate to have a central committee dictate that they major in beet husbandry with a minor in dialectic materialism?

    Ted, I really used to like your columns. In fact, I’m willing to give you the benefit of the doubt. Was all this talk about Trotsky and revolution, referencing a regime that did more to harm and exploit its average citizen than nearly any other in history, an attempt at Irony that really missed its mark?

    • The Trotsky bit is about revolutionary theory and tactics, not Soviet governance.

      OWS doesn’t have the numbers for revolution. They should build first, make demands later. Which, by the way, is a big reversal of opinion on my part. A month ago, I agreed with you. Then I saw the Occupations up close and personal.

  • alex_the_tired
    October 18, 2011 3:11 PM


    We’ll have to disagree on this one. For instance: “… less about getting things done than giving voices to the voiceless.”

    The point of having a voice is to USE it. Inarticulate mumbling, echo-chamber Oprah-esque feel-good-a-thons where everyone agrees with everyone, won’t do it.

    The 99ers either have to fish or cut bait. An extended camp-a-thon, especially with winter about to arrive?

    The fundamental problem is this: the 99ers need a media event. Although election of a senator or representative would be good, I don’t think it can be managed. So let’s take a page from the Holy Rollers. How did they get “Intelligent Design” in the books? They got their members elected to school board positions.

    So let’s try that. Are there any relatively low-level (i.e., easy enough to get into that it’s realistic) positions to which 99ers could get elected or appointed? For instance, if a 99er became a New York State Trooper (I know, it’s neither elected nor appointed, but it is something that can be managed without millions of dollars), could he (or she) arrest a Wall Street banker?

    Many of the bankers live outside of New York City. Can a banker be arrested at one of his various summer homes and tried? If the New York City officials won’t try him, move the trial to some jurisdiction that will. And if he’s found guilty, sentence him. Put him in prison for decades. And not Bernie Madoff easy-time prison. I mean put him in prison with rapists and drug addicts.

    And then go after the next one.

  • See what I mean Ted? Look at these other comments. Everything they’re taking about is just so far off base it doesn’t even merit discussion.

    Do people in this country even remotely understand the nature of power structures? Of course not. If they did, they would never be making comments about re-instating Glass/Stegal or getting progressives elected at all levels. All pointless. It’s all just shuffling the deck chairs.

    You want real change? You want to re-order the power structure? Without severe sacrifice it’s not going to happen. Yet without such changes, nothing is really changed. At best a jobs plan, some debt relief, a bunch of propaganda about change coming to Washington, and it’s all the same. Total, utter, bullshit.

    Truth be told, these protests are just a waste of my time. They simply do not have the capacity for real change and I’m not interested in some lame fucking bill that relieves a debt burden. Fuck that. I am not interested in helping the disenfranchised become obedient American consumers. Thanks, but no thanks. Call me when real revolution is imminent. Meaning, never.

  • One more thing ….

    Greece is actually better poised for a real revolution than anyone else right now. They’ve got the right idea, they just need a match to set the blaze. They have the opportunity to take their country back and direct their own destiny. It’s not easy nor pleasant, because real freedom never is. But would they rather have that freedom or be forever under the thumb of the IMF, World Bank, Germany, the US, and so on? Would you rather have 25 years of life in a zoo, or 10 years of life in the wild? I know what I would choose.

  • exkiodexian,

    I understand plenty about power structures. I understand, for instance, that people love to anthropomorphize them. In a system such as ours, they usually form spontaneously. For instance, blaming the Iraq or Afgan wars on a conspiracy is just as absurd as blaming ice on a conspiracy of water molecules that springs into action at 32 Fahrenheit. Macroscopic patterns emerge from microscopic actors obeying the same rules in a system.

    What we ultimately have is a game. Our problems are a matter of game balance. If one side keeps winning and a game stops being fun or interesting, the players generally agree to change the rules. Obviously, Wall Street would never agree to a change in rules that put them on a level playing field with everyone else, but we don’t need they’re assent. That’s the beauty of being the 99% in a democracy. If OWS would cut the Absurdist theater of trying to guilt trip bankers who lack a conscience, actually make demands, and get out the vote to see that those demands are met, then they would succeed in accomplishing something meaningful.

    Perhaps you object to my notion of life being a game. Its an imperfect analogy, but what would you have it be, a play perhaps, something already written for an actor? If that is the case I suggest that you move to a place where a People’s Revolution has taken hold without all the pesky democracy you apparently abhor. If you go to North Korea, the Kims will be happy to give you a script to read.

  • My apologizes if my comments were over the top and snarky. I do want to pose, as a serious question however, when has a revolution actually accomplished the social ideals of the revolutionary. Generally, one of two things happen. Sometimes the reactionaries win, like in the Revolutions of 1848, and society becomes more repressive to fix whatever glitches in the system allowed the commoners to become a threat. Sometimes the revolutionaries win, but are surrounded by threats inside and out. Charismatic opportunist like Napoleon or Stalin emerge and are allowed to do what they see fit to “defend” the revolution. In either case, people are worse off than when they started.

    Revolutions that worked are usually riddled with caveats. The American Revolution was really just a change in management as far as blacks, women, and non-property owners were concerned. It took us nearly 200 years to live up to anything resembling the high minded rhetoric in the Declaration of Independence. The Cuban revolution worked pretty well, but just about anything that kicks the Mob out would be an improvement.

    • You cite Napoleon. But after 1871, nearly a century later, a France we would mostly recognize today emerged, firmly ensconcing the ideal that all humans are equal as the highest idea of Western thought.

      I’m glad that happened, even though those 100 years sucked for the French.

  • alex_the_tired
    October 19, 2011 8:08 AM


    I’m not sure I understand how reinstating Glass/Stegal is an example of something “just so far off base it doesn’t merit discussion.” Nor do I see how putting banking criminals in jail (real, big-boy jail) for long stretches would fail to be effective.

    The 99% are lousy strategists. Look at Tony Bologna. He might get a two-week suspension in pay. For macing four women who weren’t any danger to anyone, he will be mildly inconvenienced. Why aren’t the 99ers screaming for his head on a plate BEFORE the hearing? After the hearing will be useless. Worse, it will send one clear message to the cops: You can still get away with this sort of shit. Sure, another cop is testifying in New York about how the police would plant drugs on innocent people in order to drive up arrest rates, but let’s not bother using that as a rallying cry. I mean, why would anyone in the public care that one day they could be the one having a bag of weed planted on them?

    Chanting! In the Park! Doesn’t! Get Things Done!
    Chanting! In the Park! Doesn’t! Get Things Done!
    Chanting! In the Park! Doesn’t! Get Things Done!

    Repeat until, like, um, no one cares anymore and you’ve lost the momentum and the public’s attention.

  • alex_the_tired:

    Oh, restoring Glass-Steagall isn’t “so far off base that it doesn’t merit discussion”. Things like, “giving everyone who ever took out a student loan a rebate” or “allowing people who were foreclosed on properly back into their homes”, however, are.

    When the left makes ridiculous demands like that, not only do they make it easier for government to ignore them, they actually actively undermine the chances of making actual progress towards the goals they claim to want (with the obvious exception of revolutionaries like Ted, who doesn’t care about progress on anything except a revolution. Nor, given his comments about the French, does he care about the likely results if he gets his wish.).

    Restoring Glass-Stegal is perfectly possible, but not by chanting in the park as you say. Its a crying shame to see all that energy that could easily be used to generate actual change wasted on something that in the end, isn’t going to generate anything other than favorable media coverage.

    • @Whimsical, Revolutionaries make revolutionary demands. I am not trying to work within the system. I want to get rid of it. Towards that end, I am not going to negotiate against myself like Obama does. Ask for the stars, settle for the moon. Obviously this system is not going to issue student loan rebates. The point of the demand is to expose it as uncaring and unfair, which it clearly is, in order to convince more people to join the movement to get rid of it. If you think things are radical now, wait.

  • Ted-

    Thing is, you’re not making revolutionary demands. An immediate end to all foreclosures until a thorough investigation is done would be a revolutionary demand. Giving back everyone their houses is a ridiculous demand, and making ridiculous demands makes the movement look clueless and silly, and no one wants to join a clueless movement.

    >>I am not trying to work within the system. I want to get rid of it.

    Believe me, I know. But you’re so eager to get rid of the system, that you’ve neglected to come up with a) a viable plan for tearing it down and b) a method to ensure that what arises in its place wouldn’t be far, far worse.

    You want people to join the movement? Fixing those two points will get far more people to join than all the ridiculous demands in the world. Oh, and your analogy about the French, basically admitting you don’t give a crap if the next 100 years suck after we tear down the system? Yeah, people aren’t really going to be queuing up to put themselves, their children and their children’s-children’s-children’s-children through Hell just to give you a moment of revolutionary satisfaction.

    See, once again I’m far to the left of most people out there, and the reason I’m not an an #Occupy?
    Twofold: First, I understand that in terms of generating actual positive results, all that energy would be better spent working within the system and second, while the system has its flaws, you have completely failed to convince me that you are capable of stopping something far worse arising if you are successful in pulling the system down.

    And if you don’t have me, you don’t have the tens of millions to the right of me.

    >>Obviously this system is not going to issue student loan rebates. The point of the demand is to expose it as uncaring and unfair, which it clearly is,

    Yes it is clear and obvious- to the point where it actually doesn’t need to be said. And saying it makes you (and by extension the movement) look silly. As I said above- nobody wants to join a silly movement.

    >>If you think things are radical now, wait.

    Bwhah! Sure things might get more radical if by radical you mean “more people camping out in the park”. But as alex_the_tired pointed out below, that doesn’t get things done. My money is still on these protests fizzling out without making a nanometer of actual positive progress on the goals they claim to want.

  • alex_the_tired
    October 21, 2011 2:59 PM


    You make a very interesting point that I thought to make but couldn’t work up the enthusiasm for. But now I’ll raise it.

    You mention “My money is still on these protests fizzling out without making a nanometer of actual positive progress on the goals they claim to want.”

    In a scientific experiment, the determination of what will be considered a “success” is made BEFORE the experiment starts. Has ANYONE thought about putting down a list of what would constitute SUCCESS? Is there some thing or list of things that we could all agree would indicate that the Movement has been successful?

    Or will this simply be something in which, eventually, both sides will declare victory and then go home?

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