Are we in the midst of a world historic event or some such Hegelian nonsense? A crop of Columbia professors certainly seemed to think so at last night’s “Understanding #OCCUPYWALLSTREET” lecture. Catch up on one of the first attempts to academicize the young movement as brought to you by Bwog’s social/economic revolutions specialist, Sam Schipani.
“I’ve decided I’m not going to introduce myself or my colleagues by our achievements because that’s not what this is about,” Stathis Gourgouris explained as he addressed an audience of Columbia students, faculty and alumni alike. “It’s about having a conversation.”
And a conversation is exactly what the “Understanding #OCCUPYWALLSTREET” lecture felt like. Besides explaining the movement that seems to be the talk of New York City, the esteemed panel of speakers introduced a new way of thinking about the issues surrounding Occupy Wall Street: looking beyond the immediate economic and political aspects of the movement into deeper social, historical, and philosophical ideas. What could have quickly devolved into a bland lecture about modern economics and politics was energized largely in part by an incredibly engaging panelist of speakers, consisting of Columbia professors Stathis Gourgouris, Nadia Urbinati, Suresh Naidu, and Sasika Sassen, each of whom contributed a different perspective based on their academic specialty.
Naidu began the evening by clarifying what exactly the movement is. College educated young adults suddenly faced with a lack of jobs and enough education to understand the logistics of anarchy,
he explained, fuel the protests, and Wall Street is targeted because the top 1% of the income is held by the financial sector. He noted that it benefits politicians financially to support these rich individuals politically, thus creating an impenetrable, corrupt network. Naidu delineated the immediate goals
for protestors as holding the park through the winter and through the next election cycle, and maintaining the energy to reach their ultimate goal: democratization. “Reform can be reversed,” he explained. “When you democratize, you not only affect your ability to change policy today, but also tomorrow and in the future.”
The next speaker, Urbinati, focused on delving into the nature of the corrupt system that Occupy Wall Street is attacking. Urbinati observed the fact that the upper 1% of the population holds most of the nation’s income is very similar to an oligarchy, which is fundamentally contradictory to the democratic principles we hold dear. She emphasized the need to bring equality back as a criterion in our debates. Uribanti also mentioned the contagious nature of the movement, and how the movement can even draw its roots back to debates at the G7 and G8 summits.
Saskia brought a global perspective to the lecture by discussing similar movements across the world, such as those in China and Latin America. She also strongly emphasized the hidden dangers of finance, saying it has the capacity to invade all economic sectors for their benefit. “Banking institutions sell money they have. Finance sells money it doesn’t have,” she explains. She displayed out a graph showing a 281% increase in wages of the upper 1% of the working population between 1979 and 2007, a marginal difference from even the upper 5% with a 95% increase. She stressed the importance of working together and how every individual participating in the protest makes a difference, citing the impact of protests in Tiananmen Square and former Soviet Russia as examples. “It’s the powerless who make history.”
Sthathis, the final speaker that evening, emphasized that, though the demands of this movement are economic, the political elements of the movement are more important, and that we need to consider economic forces as a force of political action. Sthathis seemed torn between his philosophical and practical sides as he discussed the power of the sheer presence of people occupying the space. “Philosophically, I want it to be enough, but politically it may not be.” Sthathis also highlighted the social component of the movement, especially the emotions of rage people are feeling across the globe at the degradation they are experiencing. He concluded with an important, thought provoking point: how can we move from politics of rage to politics of empowerment?
In the Q&A, the audience was incredibly receptive to the ideas presented in the lecture; each “question” asked was more like a provocation to coax the speakers into further discussing their ideas. Discussions of racial tensions, police violence, and the Great Depression Wall Street protests presented by the audience added a whole new dimension to the already rich concepts. One individual (who was actually one of the students who coordinated the event) used his time at the microphone to pass around a petition to end the 12-week lock out of the workers at Sotheby’s, which most of the inspired audience readily signed. Another audience member, who had participated in the protests since the fourth day, added her two cents about the heroism the average person feels in joining the protests for a cause they truly believe in.
Disobedient citizen via Frugal Cafe