Archive for the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ Category

Proposed Demands for Occupy Wall Street: Jobs for All, Medicare for All, MORE Social Security

January 30, 2012

In a helpful review and constructive critique of the current status of the Occupy movement, Ismael Hossein-Zadeh makes several good suggestions.  And I’ve seen some other comments more recently that seem worth sharing with you, in case you haven’t seen them.  Hossein-Zadeh focuses on proposing demands for the movement, and as I generally agree with that approach, that discussion makes up the bulk of this entry.  But I also cite and quote some other commentaries here, to present a broader set of views to help you make your own assessment.

Here’s how Hossein-Zadeh sums up OWS’ achievement thus far:

Occupy Wall Street (OWS), giving vent to the pent up anger of the 99%, has inspired the people in the United States and other parts of the world to expose capitalism for what it is: a profit-driven system that tends to enrich and empower a tiny minority at the expense of everyone else. The movement has successfully shown how the two-party machine of the US politico-electoral system has increasingly become a charade, as the moneyed 1% is essentially in charge of the government. Regardless of its shortcomings and how it would evolve henceforth, the movement’s achievements have already been truly historical, as it signifies an auspicious awakening of the people and a new spirit to fight the injustice.” 

It would be hard to deny the second observation, that the movement has focused public attention on how the two major parties and the government have come to be dominated by the rich.  But I have some reservations about whether the maldistribution of wealth and power can be attributed to capitalism as such.  It also appears that not all participants in the Occupy movements are against capitalism.  And finally, I’m not sure that replacing capitalism with some other form of economic organization is either possible, or necessary to address the problems raised by the movement.  I’ll expand on those reservations further below.

Commentators, mainstream and otherwise, have proposed that the movement formulate specific demands, or criticized it for not doing so.  Among those defending the absence of specific demands, one of the more thoughtful appeared in this past weekend’s Financial Times:

“The most prevalent criticism of the Occupy movement in the media is that it lacks a clear agenda or programme.  This misses the point.  What Ocupy is doing primarily is opening up a space – which you might call the space of deliberative democracy – as a necessary counterpoint to the often over-managed and media-controlled routines of official politics.  What will fill that space cannot, by definition, be decided in advance.”  Harry Eyres, “A Vital Space to Occupy,” FT January 28/29, 2012, Life & Arts p. 22, which I think you can access without a subscription at

On the other hand, just a few days earlier, three members of the economics working group at Occupy London in fact suggested several issue areas to focus on:  Tax policy, the housing shortage, and income inequality.  See their discussion at (David Dewhurst, Peter Dombi, and Naomi Colvin, “How Hayek helped us to find capitalism’s flaws,” FT, January 25, 2012).

And, there are several useful pieces in the February 2012 issue of Z Magazine, including this comment from Kevin Zeese  of Occupy Washington, DC on a major tactical issue that has bedeviled the movement:

“When we were organizing Occupy Washington, DC before Wall Street began, we were in conversations with movements around the world.  The Spanish indignados told us that an occupation should last no more than two weeks.  After that it becomes a diversion from the political objectives.  This has been experienced by occupiers around the country.

“Occupying for a short time accomplishes many of the objectives of holding public space – the political dialogue is affected, people are mobilized, and people can see that fellow citizens can effectively challenge the corporate state.  Staying for a lengthy period continues to deepen these goals, but the impacts are more limited and the costs get higher.”

As a subscriber, I’ve just read Kevin’s article on the goal of Occupy and several others, including one by Andy Kroll on how the 99% won a major victory in Ohio, and another by Frederick Nagel on electoral politics and OWS, in my hard copy of the February 2012 issue, but I believe selected articles from that issue will soon become available online.  Check at

Because I think the organizing impact of Occupy is its most important achievement so far, I repeat here my own assessment, from my December 2011 blog entry:

“To me, the most profound gift and achievement of Occupy Wall Street thus far is that it has catalyzed organizing for a better world.  Organizing is, after all, most fundamentally the development of common understandings and relationships of trust that enable people to act collectively to further their common interests.  From this perspective, OWS is already a success (if still only a beginning), in that it has changed the terms of popular discourse, and developed common understandings and relationships of trust, both by its actions and by the success of those actions in shining a spotlight that couldn’t be ignored on the maldistribution of wealth, income and power in our country.  And I think such organizing is not only critically important but perhaps the only possible answer to the seemingly intractable problems of our time.  We apparently face simultaneous climate change, resource depletion, and economic collapse, together with elites of wealth and power in control of a political and propaganda apparatus that makes addressing any of these problems, or even recognizing them, even more difficult than it would otherwise be.  I have worried that the situation could degenerate into chaos, a war of each against all.  The Occupy movement(s) can’t solve all of these problems, but perhaps by bringing back an emphasis and focus on the common good, they can contribute very substantially to easing the transition out of the world we know to the one that is emerging.  Maybe we can face the future helping one another, and producing and sharing the means of survival and community, in the spirit of the Occupations, rather than fighting over scraps that are inadequate, in any event, to go around.”

In the context of the all but hopeless situation we seemingly faced last fall, these achievements are truly monumental.  But to build on this beginning, where does the movement go from here?

Hossein-Zadeh discusses three major criticisms that have been made of OWS: (1) the vagueness of its demands and lack of a program for change; (2) lack or insufficient mobilization of working people; and (3) reluctance to organize and coordinate nationally.  After a very informative and useful discussion of these points, he concludes,

“The Occupy movement seems to be at a crossroads. It may continue with the self-imposed policy of ‘no leadership,’ ‘no program,’ ‘no organization’; limit itself to sporadic protest and occupation activities around general goals such as peace, democracy and social justice—and quite likely witness its gradual decline. Or it could grow and become a true vehicle for meaningful changes in favor of the 99% by making specific winnable demands, by communicating with and organizing the broader layers of the working people around such demands, and by building a nationwide political organization of, by and for the 99% with its own candidates for public office.”

Specific, Winnable Demands:  Jobs for All, Medicare for All, MORE & BETTER Social Security

As the collection of articles in Z and the piece in FT by Occupy London participants indicate, at least some Occupiers are willing to formulate demands, and are not averse to involvement in electoral politics.  My focus here is what the most useful demands might be in the context of US politics, society and culture, both for their own sake and as organizing vehicles.  As daunting as the task may seem, I think Hossein-Zadeh has come up with a very promising and simple program, with which I generally agree, in suggesting that the movement demand “jobs for all,” “Medicare for All,” and “no cuts in Social Security.”  At one point he formulates the healthcare demand, as “affordable healthcare for all.”  And his third demand is to “save Social Security.”  Since how we formulate or phrase things matters, I propose that we stick with “Medicare for all” as the healthcare demand, and that we work to INCREASE AND EXPAND rather than merely “save” Social Security.

I understand these demands “are more radical than the Democrats can stomach, but make some Occupiers yawn.”  Shamus Cooke, “Reform vs. Revolution Within Occupy,”  I have the summer and fall issues of Adbusters.  (If you don’t, you may want to get them:  Adbusters is the Canadian magazine that has been credited with catalyzing the initial Occupation of Wall Street last fall).  I know that underlying some of the motivation to Occupy Wall Street is a profound disillusionment with consumerism and other attitudes and ways of life that have become dominant or at least widespread in our culture, but that not only fail to satisfy but indeed frustrate our ultimate and deepest needs and desires, and are destroying the biosphere, and with it the possibility of continuing life in any form remotely similar to what we now have, or have known.  It is to the resumption of that debt-driven consumerist way of life that the actions of the Obama administration  and the Fed are directed.  And I believe that the resurrection of that way of life, if it can be effected (though I don’t think it can), would renew and speed up that process of destruction, which has been slowed somewhat by the economic crisis.  So there are many who say we need more than “just” jobs, healthcare, and a good social safety net.  And they’re right.

And yet, “only a truly mass movement of working people has the potential to achieve the various [as yet inchoate] demands of the Occupy movement.”  [Shamus Cook’s article, above.]  To me, anything that buys time, by forestalling the dissolution of existing institutions – the good with the bad – and the possible descent into chaos, has the potential to broaden the base of resistance and allow time and room for creation of the conditions for continuing civility and civilized life, of community.  So the demands that may bore some people – jobs, Medicare, and MORE Social Security – which provides not only retirement security but aid to younger people with disabilities, by the way  – are eminently sensible and appealing to me.  A people that has united and mobilized to achieve such demands would be better informed and empowered and in a better position to achieve more fundamental change, while people who are struggling for the means of sustenance can’t even think about such things.  And if we add to my trio the demand that these things be paid for by taxing Wall Street, large corporations and the rich and substantially dismantling the war machine, we have the makings of a comprehensive program with enormous appeal to, if not the entire 99%, at least substantial majorities for each component and for the program as a whole.  So with that prelude, let’s take a look at Hossein-Zadeh’s suggestions in more detail.

“Jobs for all” speaks for itself and is pretty hard to misinterpret or confuse, and we have ample historical examples and precedent in the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, and other New Deal programs.

I would shy away from formulating a demand as “affordable healthcare for all,” though, because the opposition and even many people in favor of the general idea may argue that there are many ways in which it might be fulfilled.  Some even argue that we already have affordable healthcare for all (based on the availability of emergency rooms).  Okay, I know that’s crazy, and cruel, but it’s what some people think, and argue.  And it’s important to Simplify, Simplify, and – did I mention the importance of simplicity?  Partly because there are devils waiting in the wings to kill any good social program with details, and anyway, in simplicity there is clarity.  So I would demand “Medicare for all,” because that demand is based on a specific, existing program, and expanding it to include everyone is the simplest way to meet the demand without risking confusion over the details, which are already practiced by the existing Medicare program.

Similarly, I would not formulate the third demand as “save Social Security,” because there are many ways in which that might be done, including by cutting benefits and increasing the eligibility age, both of which have been proposed by people whose real goal is ultimately to gut the program.  I would formulate the third demand as, “MORE Social Security,” by which I mean, EXPAND the program to lower the retirement age and increase benefits.  This would not only directly help a great many people, but would be a useful stimulant to the macro-economy.  More detail is available from Steven Hill, “Don’t Cut Social Security, DOUBLE It,” and Joshua Holland, “We’re Being Conned on Social Security – How We Could Easily Raise Benefits or Allow People to Retire Earlier,”–_how_we_could_easily_raise_benefits_or_allow_people_to_retire_earlier?page=entire.   Demanding MORE Social Security also has the advantage of seizing the initiative, playing offense instead of defense, and combining clarity with simplicity.

Why the Resistance from Occupy Wall Street?

Hossein-Zadeh gives an example of an effort to have a practical demand adopted by OWN.  On December 18, 2011, the “Demands Working Group” proposed the following demand to the New York City General Assembly:

“JOBS FOR ALL—A Massive Public Works and Public Service Program:

“We demand a democratically-controlled public works and public service program, with direct government employment, to create 25 million new jobs at good union wages. The new jobs will go to meeting the needs of the 99%, including education, healthcare, housing, mass transit, and clean energy. The program will be funded by raising taxes on the rich and corporations and by ending all U.S. wars. Employment in the program will be open to all, regardless of immigration status or criminal record” [6. “Proposal for Sunday, 12/18, General Assembly: Jobs for All – Demands Working Group”:].

Hossein-Zadeh reports that this Proposal did not pass the General Assembly.  I don’t know how I could determine why it didn’t, and in any case have not had time to try, but the fact certainly gives one pause.  I suggested above some reasons why the demands I’m advocating here might make some Occupiers yawn, and reflect a bit further here on some of the possibilities.  These thoughts go not just to rejection of the above Proposal by the General Assembly in NYC, but also to some other issues my proposed demands might raise.

I can only speculate, but perhaps OWS might be reluctant to endorse demands favoring Medicare or Social Security in part because of the relative youth of many of its participants.  Although I know it’s something of an obsession even for many young people now, and catastrophic medical problems can certainly strike at any age, at least in my own early twenties I was not terribly concerned about medical insurance, let alone retirement income, and many young people (and others of all ages) have been deceived (by a very well organized propaganda campaign) into thinking that Social Security can’t possibly last, and won’t be available to them in their later years.  And it’s understandable that people concerned about getting a job in this impossible market and putting food on the table, and perhaps paying off student loans in the process, would have a hard time focusing on their retirement income.  All I can say is that as organizing tools, and as practical and realistic demands, I respectfully recommend the three-part focus on jobs, healthcare, and security in old age, formulated as “Jobs for All,” “Medicare for All,” and “MORE Social Security.”

These three demands, and the demand that they be paid for by taxing Wall Street, large corporations, and the rich, and by dismantling much of the war machine, have several great things in common.  As poll after poll has shown, they are, or have the potential to be, enormously popular with the great mass of the public.  Each would give a much-needed helping hand to millions of people in need, while also stimulating the economy as a whole, so the total benefit would be even greater than the sum of its parts.  And together they would promote both the reality of the common good and the underlying idea that we should care about and for one another, that we have interests in common that we can and should address collectively, through government as well as other forms of social organization. That we need not and should not be engaged in a perpetual war of each against all. That core idea, along with the living standards of the 99%, has been under relentless attack for several decades now, and each of the proposed demands is a blockbuster defense.  Simply by demanding that Social Security be DOUBLED, OWS could transform the debate on that subject, putting advocates of cuts on the defensive and focusing attention on the benefits of the program, and the ease of expanding and strengthening it.

Regarding the relentless attack on the common good that has been going on for at least 30 years, a very good overview is in Bill Moyers’ January 13, 2012 interview, “Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson on Engineered Inequality,” vimeo and transcript both available at  I also recommend my Financial & Economic Crisis: An Assessment and Action Plan (, for an analysis of the problem and some rudimentary suggestions as to how we might transition to a new and sustainable economy.

To Vote, or Not To Vote?

So what is to be done in order to implement these demands?  The recent, amazing and successful lobbying effort to stave off repressive regulation of the internet shows that even without taking to the streets, it’s possible for people to mobilize and defeat powerful forces.  And the Occupy movement has shown that taking to the streets can also be effective, at least up to a (very important) point.  But some people who want fundamental, compassionate change, perhaps including many Occupiers, may balk at the idea that we should vote at all, let alone try to run candidates for office and build a political machine or party to do so.  Chris Hedges stands out, at least in my mind, as one of those who argue that the ballot box is useless and nothing but direct action is meaningful in the present crisis.  But as I’ve argued before, and as Noam Chomsky frequently points out,

“[W]e do still have enormous freedom to agitate, organize, protest and struggle for change. The ballot box isn’t useless, it just isn’t being used nearly enough. But we still have it. And for its use to be more effective, we need a great many more people who recognize our real problems and demand that our political structures and players address them. It isn’t yet quite true, as Leonard Cohen said so long ago, that ‘the cities they are broke in half, and the middlemen are gone.’ So ‘let me ask you one more time, O children of the dust: All these hunters who are shrieking now, do they speak for us?’

“But it won’t be enough to ask just one more time. We need to keep asking, nagging, agitating, informing, sharing information and analysis – in a word, organizing – to build a sufficient and sustained opposition to the evils of our time, and to regain and defend the commons and the common good.”

To say that we should mobilize at the ballot box is not to say that a new party needs to be built from scratch.  That is one option, but there are also several organizations working to build alternative political parties – check them out.  There are also organizations working to reform the Democratic Party.  Daunting or perhaps hopeless as that task may appear, I still take some encouragement from the work of Progressive Democrats of America, which works both inside and outside the Democratic Party, and endorses a very limited list of candidates.  For my money – or vote – it would be hard to beat, as a candidate, Elizabeth Warren, now running for the US Senate from Massachusetts.  I mention these details to illustrate the alternatives, but my basic point is, as  Hossein-Zadeh suggests, there is nothing quite so effective to pressure an officeholder as an alternative candidate running or threatening to run against him or her.  So it seems, well, quixotic to eschew the electoral process in favor of exclusively street actions, for the same reasons it seems inadvisable to refrain from formulating any specific demands.

A footnote to the discussion:  What about capitalism?

I understand many participants in OWS consider capitalism as intrinsically flawed, and believe at least some would demand some sort of revolutionary restructuring of our economy and society.  Personally, I’m not sure an economic system has yet been devised which is not in some sense flawed or at least, subject to abuse by those in power.  I understand there are people who think having government do just about anything is “socialism.”  But that deprives the word of useful meaning.  If socialism is defined as public/government ownership of the means of production, I don’t see it as a solution to all the problems created by our current economic system.  I actually think the ultimate answer lies in the direction of decentralized, more walkable communities, with more participatory forms of government than we now have, and that might be more practical on a small-scale, local or regional basis.  But how do we get there from here?  I would favor a nonviolent, incremental or evolutionary approach to a restructured economy, with the details necessarily emerging gradually over time.  I tried to at least hint at some of the directions such a restructuring might take toward the end of my paper on the Financial & Economic Crisis,

In any case, to me, power is the key variable, and the ultimate problem is its unfair or repressive exercise.  “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  So I think the fundamental problem we face now arises from the concentration of power and its inevitably repressive exercise, and the failure of the 99% thus far to confront and resist it effectively.  And so the answer, for me, lies in developing and exercising the political will to restructure the economy, and in organizing to make that possible.

On a longer-term, evolutionary basis, greater decentralization seems both desirable and inevitable.  And the more organized we are, the more smoothly that evolution can take place, and the more humane and compassionate the outcome can be.

But to the extent it makes sense to address problems on a national level, I propose that we demand jobs for all, Medicare for all, and MORE Social Security.  And doing so does not require, and need not await, the overthrow of capitalism as such.  In fact, as one who grew up in the Fifties and Sixties of twentieth century US, I think fondly of the so-called “mixed” economy, with a relatively progressive tax structure, a smaller and controllable financial sector, and a limited welfare state, that we had then.  It’s the dismantling of the domestic safety net built by FDR and LBJ and the movements that pressured them that has led us to the present pass, and the deregulation of the financial and other key sectors, by Bill Clinton’s repeal of Glass-Steagall as much as anything else, that have pushed us to, if not quite yet over, the brink.  Interestingly, I find a useful statement on this topic in a recent Financial Times editorial, “Ruling capitalism”:

“By capitalism, we mean well-regulated free-enterprise economies – systems where resources are governed mostly by the responsible choices of private individuals, within ground rules that are clear, consistent and immune from bias in favor of any special interest.  …

“The excesses that drove the bubble and the breakdown that followed happened because leaders forgot that free enterprise requires rules.  When some people benefit not from bringing useful products to market but stopping others from doing so; when some takes risks from which they reap the gains but others face the losses; when many are deprived of opportunities to make their way in the job market – that is not capitalism but an economy captured by cliques.”  FT, January 27, 2012.

Personally I find the FT’s view of capitalism somewhat utopian, or perhaps I should say naïve, in that the editors seem to believe the system can be made to work fairly toward the common good by the adoption of proper rules by the leadership and the exercise of moral values by capitalists themselves.  While Adam Smith certainly recognized and indeed assumed the key role morality should play in an economic system, it seems clear that the control of capitalist excesses requires, in addition, the exercise of political control by an organized people.  But making capitalism function humanely seems to me ultimately to present no more of a problem than we might encounter with any economic system.

So where do we go from here?  National Organization and Coordination?  A Solidarity Social Forum in Olympia

Hossein-Zadeh usefully discusses the promise of national organization and coordination in his article, at pp. 4-6, and I have nothing to add here to that discussion, at  (  There are both strengths and weaknesses in a decentralized movement.  But as for what comes next, in case you haven’t already heard, the Alliance for Global Justice, fiscal sponsor of OWS, has announced a Social Forum to be hosted by Occupy Olympia (WA) and held in Olympia this February 18-19.  For details, check in with the Alliance at, and see  Then spread the word!


Would Jesus Occupy Wall Street?

December 18, 2011

As I was writing Christmas and Hanukkah cards this evening, I began thinking about Jesus of Nazareth, whose birthday is celebrated at Christmas, and who is said to have been a Jewish carpenter.  Nowadays carpenters are skilled workers who may be reasonably well off, at least when the economy is doing its job.  But in Jesus’ day, artisans like carpenters, along with prostitutes, beggars, and bandits, were among the destitute who had been driven off the land by confiscatory taxation and the commercializing Roman Empire, as practices like the forgiveness of debt were replaced by exploitation and foreclosure.

Perhaps someone has already done this, but in case not, I think it’s time to ask:  If Jesus were with us bodily today and living in the United States, is there any serious question where he would stand on the Occupy Wall Street movement?  And if he were living in your community, what would he say (or do) about Occupy Portland, or Boston, or Chicago, or Eugene, or New York, or any of the scores (hundreds?) of other places people have gathered to protest the obscene maldistribution of wealth, income and political power in our society?  After all, wasn’t Jesus, during his public ministry, among the homeless of his time?  The Son of Man had no place to lay his head.

It might be said that bringing Jesus’ name to bear on contemporary politics trivializes his life and teachings, which are concerned with a “higher” plane of existence.  But having spent much of my spare time for twenty years reading dozens of books about the historical Jesus, I agree with those scholars who say his primary concern was with systemic injustice, with which our economy and political system are rife, and that he stood with the destitute against the empire of his time.  It even appears that he was a (the first?) community organizer.  There is more, of course, but I develop these and related themes in the essay below, first published on the CounterPunch site last Xmas Eve, and invite you to consider these things this Season.

It may be useful first to clarify what I mean by the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Those who have participated in the many occupations through the US have been accused of not having expressed a clear set of goals.  It’s true they have spoken with many voices, but the insistence on a set of specific demands is misplaced, if not disingenuous.   Still, I’d like to be clear about what I have in mind as the meaning of OWS.

To me, the most profound gift and achievement of Occupy Wall Street thus far is that it has catalyzed organizing for a better world.  Organizing is, after all, most fundamentally the development of common understandings and relationships of trust that enable people to act collectively to further their common interests.  From this perspective, OWS is already a success (if still only a beginning), in that it has changed the terms of popular discourse, and developed common understandings and relationships of trust, both by its actions and by the success of those actions in shining a spotlight that couldn’t be ignored on the maldistribution of wealth, income and power in our country.  And I think such organizing is not only critically important but perhaps the only possible answer to the seemingly intractable problems of our time.  We apparently face simultaneous climate change, resource depletion, and economic collapse, together with elites of wealth and power in control of a political and propaganda apparatus that makes addressing any of these problems, or even recognizing them, even more difficult than it would otherwise be.  I have worried that the situation could degenerate into chaos, a war of each against all.  The Occupy movement(s) can’t solve all of these problems, but perhaps by bringing back an emphasis and focus on the common good, they can contribute very substantially to easing the transition out of the world we know to the one that is emerging.  Maybe we can face the future helping one another, and producing and sharing the means of survival and community, in the spirit of the Occupations, rather than fighting over scraps that are inadequate, in any event, to go around.

I’ve written extensively on the financial and economic crisis — and proposed solutions, none of which have been implemented — in previous entries in this blog.  But at times I’ve wondered whether some of my concerns were not a bit overdone, with respect to the possible political consequences of the continuation or worsening of current economic conditions.  Thanks to OWS, some of the most prominent and thoughtful voices in the mainstream media (yes, I think there are a few such) have expressed similar concerns.  For example, Martin Wolf, economics commentator for The Financial Times (London), the world’s premier financial newspaper, wrote recently:  “Darker forms of politics are waiting in the wings:  nationalism, racism.  We do not need to watch this tragedy again.”  (“The big questions raised by anti-capitalist protests,” FT, October 27, 2011).  Paraphrasing Wolf and seconding these concerns, William Pfaff, editorial page columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris, wrote a few weeks later that “it was not the hyperinflation Germany experienced after the First World War, but rather the brutal and seemingly interminable Depression and unemployment that followed the crash, that created the conditions in which German democracy collapsed.”  As Pfaff continued, “Its successor, National Socialism, ended the Depression and put the German economy back on its feet.  In case anyone has forgotten.”  And in the same piece, Pfaff observes, “The Occupiers dismiss [the] demand for a program as contrary to the spirit of the Occupation.  There is not and cannot be an agreed-upon program because that is not the nature of the movement, which is against ‘the system.’…How, after all, can ‘the system’ be changed?  Well first, justice could be done.  That is what people want:  justice.”  (“What Occupiers Should Ask For but What They Won’t Get,” November 16, 2011,

For more elaborate statements on the meaning and import of OWS and our current situation, I’d also suggest to your attention these further commentaries:  “Belittling the Occupy Movement – By Eugene [Oregon] Occupier Samuel Rutledge (November 20, 2011),; Mike King, “Occupations and the Fulfillment of Human Need:  The Vacancies of Capitalism” (November 30, 2011),; and incidentally, as a little encouragement for those of us who still hope there might still be hope and that thinking things through might help to produce it, historian Gabriel Kolko’s “Menu for Today’s Tricky Planet:  Use Your Head” (November 17, 2011),

But now on to the main event, my portrait (gleaned almost entirely from the work of others, as cited) of Jesus of Nazareth as a community organizer, whose teachings and values were substantially commensurate with those of Occupy Wall Street:

Up Against the Empire:  Celebrating the Rebel Jesus

Tell me say, What kind of man this Jesus is, my lord?/ He come to my heart, and my heart opened up.

— Buffy Ste.-Marie, “Ananais”

The media distorted parts of Jesus’ message right from the start. The Gospels, and the first generation of Jesus’ followers, effectively altered or hid his more radical teachings, and what has been preached from a million pulpits and that we still get from many today is a gross distortion. Jesus was not preoccupied with individual “sin” but with systemic injustice, in opposition to the commercializing empire of his time. The historical Jesus disclosed by contemporary scholarship appears to be fundamentally the same as the Jesus who is preached and practiced in the Catholic Worker movement, for example. And the parallels between his conflict with Rome and our own with imperial America are striking indeed.

Then as now, the maldistribution of wealth was quite severe, with peasants comprising the bulk of the population. “The term peasant … denotes a relationship of exploitation in which the vast majority who produce the food on which everyone and everything depends are consistently relieved of their surplus, so that a small minority have a huge surplus while most remain at a subsistence level. Simply: a peasant is a systematically exploited farmer.” John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus 4 (1995). Being a Jewish peasant had its saving moments, however, because of “a traditional ideology of land … enshrined in the ancient Pentateuchal laws.” Just as the people were to rest on the seventh or Sabbath Day, so God’s land was to rest on the seventh or Sabbath Year, when Jewish debts were to be remitted and Jewish slaves released. Exodus 23:10-11; Deuteronomy 15:1-3, 12-14,” Id. 5-6. And in the “Jubilee Year, the year after seven sets of Sabbath Years, all expropriated lands and even village houses, though not city ones, were to revert to their original or traditional owners. Leviticus 25:10, 18. “While the Jubilee Year was most likely no longer implemented at all by the first century, the Sabbath Year was probably still more or less enforced.” Id. 6. Those ancient laws “refuse to see debt, slavery, or land expropriation simply as business transactions. The land is a divine possession not a negotiable commodity[:] … ‘The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.'” Leviticus 25:23.

By Jesus’ day, however, the Roman Empire was no longer a traditional but a commercialized agrarian empire. To the Roman imperialist, land accumulation was a sensible business practice and debt foreclosure the best and quickest way to accomplish it. Crossan, The Essential Jesus 6. In first century Palestine, the Jewish peasantry was being pushed into debt and displaced from its holdings at unusually high rates, since land became, under the commercialized Roman economy, less an ancestral inheritance never to be abandoned and more an entrepreneurial commodity rapidly to be exploited. As higher rates of imperial and Herodian taxation forced increasing numbers of peasants from their land, there developed a growing class of destitute people with few options. One could become an artisan, a prostitute, a beggar, or a bandit. In this context Jesus of Nazareth appeared, the son of an artisan.

“Repent and believe in the gospel.” But “repentance” is not about a feeling of penitance for individual sins. It means a turning, at a more fundamental level, of the heart and soul to God. Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision 122 n. 74, and 163-164 (1987). “The prophets called Israel to repent, which meant to turn or return, and which referred primarily to a change in Israel’s collective life, and not simply to a change in individual lives.” Id., 153 text and n. 13. Belief in the gospel does not mean merely to believe, as a condition of salvation, in certain doctrines or teachings, but to “give one’s heart to” the good news that the Kingdom of God is at hand. See Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For The First Time 137 (1995). And the Kingdom entails both religious and political meanings, in a situation of imperial domination and colonial exploitation. “The phrase evokes an ideal vision of political and religious power, of how this world here below would be run if God, not Caesar, sat on the imperial throne.” John Dominic Crossan, The Essential Jesus 7-8.

In the Kingdom of God, it is not the rich who are favored, but the destitute. As destitute people flocked to Jesus to hear his teaching and to see or be cured by his mighty works, he taught them by the example of his life, as well. Be compassionate as God is compassionate. (Luke 6:36; see Marcus J. Borg, Meeting Jesus Again 46, text and fn. 1.) Judge not, lest you be judged. If you have two coats and your brother has none, give one to your brother. Never refuse alms to one who asks for them. What you do for the least of these, you do for me. Love your neighbor as yourself. And who is my neighbor? A broken stranger lying by the side of the road. Eating and drinking, Jesus practiced open commensality, shared table fellowship, that mirrored many of his stories in their radical egalitarianism. He practiced free healing, declining to set up a brokered healing business that would stay in one place and let his disciples mediate access to him for a fee. Instead, he was always on the move for the next town, personally and directly accessible, and always performed, as it were, free of charge. He didn’t make people dependent on his power: he empowered them.

The stories of Jesus’ interactions with women are remarkable. First century Judaism was deeply patriarchal. Women had few rights; they could not be witnesses in a court of law, or initiate a divorce. They were not to be taught the Torah and were to be separated from men in public life. Respectable women did not go out of the house unescorted by a family member; adult women were to be veiled in public. But Jesus defended the woman who entered an all-male banquet, unveiled and with her hair unbraided, and washed his feet with her hair. While being hosted by Mary and Martha, he affirmed Mary’s choice of the role of disciple. And of course, he spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well. Women were apparently part of the itinerant group traveling with Jesus; the movement itself was financially supported by some wealthy women. And the evidence is compelling that women played leadership roles in the early post-Easter community. Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again For the First Time 57 (1995).

“When you go into any land and walk about in the districts, if they receive you, eat what they will set before you, and heal the sick among them.” Gospel of Thomas 14:2. See also Luke 10:4-11 = Matt 10:8-14 and Mark 6:8-13 = Matt 10:8-10a, 11 = Luke 9:2-6. John Dominic Crossan in a study based in part on the Didache argues persuasively that the itinerants who went out preaching the gospel in the century or so following Jesus’ ministry offered free healing in exchange for a meal, carrying on the practice mentioned, briefly, in the Gospels. Crossan, The Essential Jesus 9-10, and The Birth of Christianity, passim. Crossan speculates that the disciples were sent out two by two because one of them was likely female in many cases, and the two would travel as a couple for the woman’s protection.

The Kingdom movement was thus a form of community organizing, Jesus’ program of empowerment for a peasantry becoming steadily more hard-pressed through insistent taxation, indebtedness, and eventual loss of land, within the commercialized Roman Empire under Augustan peace and a Lower Galilee under Herodian urbanization. “Jesus lived, against the systemic injustice and structural evil of that situation, an alternative open to all who would accept it: a life of [free] healing and shared eating, of radical itinerancy, programmatic homelessness, and fundamental egalitarianism, of human contact without discrimination, and of divine contact without hierarchy. He also died for that alternative.” Crossan, The Essential Jesus 12.

The parallels with contemporary events could scarcely be more clear, or more striking. The form of globalization promoted by the elites of the rich countries and their instruments such as the IMF and the World Bank have driven peasants the world over off their land and into lives and early deaths of destitution. For example, “[p]rior to the 1910 revolution, wealthy landowners had confiscated most of indigenous Mexico’s communal farmland, reducing the campesinos to a state of serfdom. … [L]argely through the struggle of Zapata and his followers … the Mexican constitution of 1917, [in] Article 27, guaranteed the return and protection of communal land to farmers. … [A]lthough land reform [thus] became law in Mexico, it was only partially carried out. However, on January 1, 1994, as a condition of Mexico’s joining the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Article 27 of the Mexican constitution was abolished. An organization of Mayan Indians from the state of Chiapas, calling themselves the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), recognized this abolition as a death sentence for Mexico’s rural indigenous population. NAFTA would force farmers who could not compete with foreign investors’ technology and equipment off the land, thus opening up a wealth of cheap land and labor for exploitation by international corporations.” Donald Nollar, “Fighting For Our Lives,” Catholic Agitator (May, 2001), p. 1.

The rest has become part of our recent history, and is still going on. Similar scenarios have played out all across the globe. The rich countries continue to enforce protectionist policies and provide subsidies for their own basic industries, while demanding access to the markets of developing countries. “Free trade” is a euphemism for unfair trade. Protectionism is the only way any country has ever developed a domestic industrial base. The destruction of trade barriers and other mechanisms have, however, opened up many Third World countries to imports from the rich countries, resulting in the devastation of Third World industries, agriculture, and entire economies. Haiti is one of the more heart-rending examples.

And the commercializing empires of the industrialized world seek to reduce everything that was once regarded as personal or unique or holy to the status of interchangeable, salable commodities, demanding that all resources, including human beings, be accessible for exploitation, ostensibly to maximize production and thus promote the common good. But we all know what a rising tide does to those who have no boats, and it’s happening every minute of every day to people throughout the world.

At this point, the very idea of the common good is under relentless attack. That’s what is so evil about the current attacks on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and the safety net generally, such as it still is. The real animus behind these attacks is hostility to the idea of the common good, the notion that we should care about and for one another, the very idea that we have interests in common that we can and should address collectively, through government as well as other forms of social organization. But caring for one another is our natural state, so a sustained program of propaganda is in place to persuade us to think only of wealth, forgetting all but self.

And what I think we need not only to counter these forces but to build community for its own sake is organizing: the development of common understandings and relationships of trust that will enable enough of us to act collectively, constructively, in coordination, to redeem the commons and serve the common good. Given that the airwaves are saturated with lies, the truth needs to be shared through other means: mind-to-mind, hand-to-hand, person-to-person, sometimes but not necessarily face-to-face and one-on-one. That’s what organizing ultimately is, and it can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including by the written as well as the spoken word.

We are called upon, in the present age, to oppose the forces of injustice and oppression, and to defend the commons, our common humanity, and the common good, and with them our neighbors, including and especially the most vulnerable among us. We are called by our very nature, our needs as human beings for fulfillment through relationship and community. This Season, we also hear the call from the movement to Occupy Wall Street.  And in answering that call, we have the powerful and heroic example of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth – as Jackson Browne has aptly called him, the rebel Jesus.