Laurens Rademakers


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Where are the poor in Occupy Wall Street?

---Or is this just another bourgeois movement?---

I have a lot of sympathy for Occupy Wall Street. Hell, even Slavoj Zizek came by to give a talk.

But what bothers me is that I can have sympathy, because I'm relatively well fed (like all OWSers), I'm relatively wealthy (like all OWSers), I don't live on foodstamps (like all OWSers), I have an academic background (like all OWSers). In short, I'm an average middle-class bore (like all OWSers, and probably like you who read this).

So where are the poor? Where are the ethnic minorities? Where are those who're the biggest victims of capitalism? I don't see them. Especially: I don't hear them.

-This begs the question as to whether OWS is just another bourgeois party, that will end without any impact, as we have seen so often, and instead of relieving inequality simply sharpen it.

-This also begs a more optimistic question: do all genuine revolutions always start with an avant-garde that acts "top-down" and that claims to be speaking for the poor? It may be the case, but we know that this form of "representation" -- middle-class bourgeois kids (like Lenin or Mao or Hitler) speaking for others --, is highly problematic and has led to catastrophies.

In short, OWS is not a bottom-up movement. It is a movement of the middle class, which, all in all, does not have to complain. And that is why I fear it will easily be coopted by its enemy - capital. OWS has no real "antagonistic" streak, no real vitality, in the sense that it is willing to give all to win all (like the few real revolutions in history did).

When will the wretched of the earth rise up, in America? When will these people, who scratch for a "living", who are condemned to being obese or dead-poor or uneducated, get up, leave their TV sets and unite to pronounce a discourse (in whatever form)? Because only then can we speak of some genuine revolution, and not just of a "movement".

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    Nov 3 2011: Possible answers:
    Too poor to travel and take the time off to participate.
    Too tired and exhausted from working and child rearing to be able to attend.
    Too poor to buy child care to attend.
    Too dejected to believe that it could make a difference.
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      Nov 4 2011: So where went that idea of "freedom"? You seem to describe some kind of enslaved class of people who will never see any change. A very depressing picture. But it might be a correct one.
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        Nov 8 2011: Laurens, I do believe that we have slavery in this world in degrees. Debt slavery is more socially acceptable than actual enslavement but it never-the-less restricts every form of movement and action. Our poor have ,in reality, very few freedoms in a society that purports to have equality for all. Their kids are less well nourished, poorly educated, have access to less stimuli and input in the form of travel, language exposure, etc. and have no access to higher education except for the celebrated few which the society holds up as some sort of ideal (perhaps to sustain the fiction that everyone has access to the 'good life'. In reality those kids- if they do get to Harvard- have to work and thus do not qualitfy for any internships or scholarships because they have no 'relevant' experience.)
    • Nov 5 2011: I agree with that. The majority of the "Occupy" protesters appear to be middle class young adults; people who are living cheap and don't have many responsibilities beyond themselves. They are mobile, socially connected, idealistic, and have the time to get involved. The majority of the "underclass" can't afford the luxury of protest. A unified, vocal movement would be something. A leaderless, chaotic "camp out in the park" movement isn't worth the time and money for people who lack both.
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      Nov 8 2011: Debra, you are always dead on!

      And I would add,
      Too well programmed to believe they have a role to play.
      Too neglected to realize they have a voice.
      Too busy to even know OWS is happening "out there".
  • Nov 4 2011: Ten years ago I was just getting off the streets. I was put there because I had lost my job and a week later my roommate kicked me out because I couldn't find a job in that week. When I became homeless, no one was going to hire me. I got so low at points that eating out of a dumpster was not only A choice but was THE choice I had. Through the programs that I came across in California after I hitch hiked there, I was able to start the process to slowly get back on my feet. Wound up back in Washington and I would like to say that I lived happily ever after but bettering your life financially when you are coming up from the bottom is no easy task in the best of times. Its pretty much impossible at the worst. And thats what I've been trying to do. During my own personal better economic times I've went to school, and during the worst I went for full time employment always with the intention of completing my education and setting myself up to maybe have a decent living wage during my middle ages. Now I'm looking at the fact that DESPITE all of my best efforts, despite all of the energy I have put towards MAYBE getting some upward mobility, despite all of my work towards the American dream, I may wind up back out on those streets again........... Where am I you ask? Out there, rising up when I can, while trying to live the very life that I am fighting for........... I am out there on the street corner fighting for my life while trying to set my life up. THATS where I am. Oh yes, and I do have a well fed exterior but it was not always so, and if we lose, it may not always be.
    • Nov 4 2011: Joshua
      Thank you for a very forthright honest answer. Stay at it.
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      Nov 4 2011: Joshua, I sure wish that every single TEDster could read your experience and hear the cry of your heart. You are trying and the system is intent on continuing as it is and uses the tactic of pretending that you and others are not trying and are not worthy of help. This is simply the manifestation of social darwinism and it is killing our societies. Man, I wish you luck and I hope that the Occupy Wall St. protests give you and others like you an ear and a platform to speak!

      I really think that setting up screens to broadcast the true stories of real people like Joshua would be a very effective tool in the protests.
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      Nov 4 2011: Joshua, forget the American Dream, that's a great myth. Simply remember that you're not alone in your struggle. I only wished people (especially in the US) would show more solidarity and stand up to call a halt to an a-social system.

      I wish you the best. I'm sure you'll get by.

      After all, you found TED, that means you're an intelligent/interesting guy!
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    Nov 7 2011: When change threatens to rule, then the rules are changed.

    Rather than be bothered by the fact that the so called "bourgeois" (a term I'm not entirely comfortable throwing around) are standing alone in the face of adversity, I propose that we as individuals embrace their fortitude and determination. The term "bourgeois" leaves a sour taste in my mouth because I consider it a convenient designator that is marked by a concern for material interests, respectability and a tendency toward mediocrity. I myself would hardly assign that term to these people.

    In my eyes this is the classic example of standing up for the little man. Representing those who cannot represent themselves. Consider the OWS protesters freelance, pro-bono, activists.

    Those who lead a comfortable life as many of us in this conversation and many of those on streets claim to be, should galvanize us. Those people are willing to leave that comfort zone, if but only for a moment to stand up for something that they believe in. Many of them, like those aforementioned wall street suits don't need to go out there and protest, but they do it anyway.

    Instead of patronizing or over analyzing the socio-economic demographics that this movement is comprised of, let us support it. Regardless of race, creed, religion, class, sexual orientation etc... Let's be the first "bourgeois" that looks out for the "proletariat".
  • m dobb

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    Nov 3 2011: i actually live in nyc and have been down to the park every week for the last month. I don't know what you are seeing on the news, but yes there are people of all races and SES there. Caucasian, AfroAmerican, Asian, Orthodox Jewish, Arab, Hispanic etc etc, young, old, unemployed, employed, homeless... even one night when we cleaned up the park a few wall st suits came out to help sweep up. It is a beautiful thing to see.
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    Nov 3 2011: You see your playing the (often) US view of harping on about race when really it is a probable class issue, as Joshua Scott Slade has hinted at. Black and white people are not the only peoples on the planet, why mention blacks? Why not Asian, East Indian or any other ethnic group?About 15 years ago a new road was to be built near my parents and their were big protest and an occupation. Most of those on that occupation did not in fact grow up in said area, which was predominantly white working/lower middle. Many people from working or lower middle backgrounds do not have the time or inclination to demonstrate as they are thinking of getting their kids home from school or paying the mortgage. Also in my opinion those people on the demonstrations are generally well informed and well educated and perhaps quite tribal. Many of said hard working and lower middle classes often do not have time to read the broadsheet papers or discuss politics online like we are. People like me are interested in the politics against bankers but I have a famly and work to go to. so please don’t look at it through the prism of so called ‘race’
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      Nov 3 2011: Guillaume, I use the "race" reference only on a symbolic level, to annoy people into reading. As a marxist (not to be obnoxious), I agree that this is a class issue. But using race strategically may be useful.

      In the end capitalism doesn't care about race, it only cares about inequality. So that's where our focus should be. Capitalism doesn't care where it plants down its institutions, as long as labor is cheap, and citizens don't protest about them or their environment being exploited (hence capitalism hops from Europe, to America, to Latin America, now to Asia, and soon to Africa - the last great unexploited terrain).

      Let's not forget that inequality is the quintessential motor of the system. Without differences (in wages, in interest rates, in environmental laws, in labor laws...), it wouldn't work. And if there's not enough inequality, capitalism will artificially create it. In the past it often did this by creating and maintaining racism or sexism. Since race and sex have become boring issues, not longer exploitable by capitalism, it is now focusing on other categories to create difference and inequality (such as "morality" - you can now buy starbucks coffee while buying a cup of morality at the same time (you protect some rainforest, do some fair trade, respect some "natives" somewhere --- all in that single cup of coffee. The new differenciator is "ethical" and "non-ethical" consumers. It's a kind of "cultural capitalism").
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        Nov 4 2011: An excellent analogy Laurens and one that time and again I have reiterated I like your Starbucks analogy I never though of it that way, now I can think of other examples. Your right issues of 'race' and sex are boring, sexuality too
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    Nov 3 2011: One of the big problems, most people I know from poor backgrounds are the most manipulated by the media and lack knowledge of what has gone on in financial institutions and politics over the years. They voted for the Conservatives in England because the Sun newspaper told them to, the same people who will spit at this ridiculous movement because the people are "different"

    I grew up in a poor dead end small English town. Now rife with drugs and violence as the problems they dont see coming affect them in ways they dont really understand.

    That is my experience, growing up in a place like that, feeling alienated and having to work hard to get out. This manufactured popular culture has to change too.

    Personally I dont see a problem with most people being middle class, they are often more informed and generate passion to move against such problems. Obviously Id like to see the movement diversify and gain more recognition, I hope that happens.
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    Nov 2 2011: I hear your point, and it's a good one - yet, I beg to differ in some ways. OWS certainly paints the picture of a bourgeois party, but I see them as symbols, or representatives of other voices. There has been a collective dissatisfaction building for many years, and certainly since 2009, waiting to burst out. I'm of the opinion it's this group of people who have the energy and passion to speak for it. Perhaps it's because they are not as hungry and downtrodden as those who've been living it their whole lives. It's having impact. Just this week, Bank of America rescinded on their decision to charge extra fees for debit card use. This is in direct response to this movement.

    One doesn't have to be completely downtrodden to be angry. Simply the loss of, or stagnant, income, and the inability to have a decent quality of life due to never ending rising costs and mismanagement is enough to make people rise up. They are the voice of Howard Beale in the movie, Network. "We're mad and we're not gonna take it anymore."
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      Nov 4 2011: Hi Linda, my fear is things like 'Bank of America rescinded on their decision to charge extra fees for debit card use' will end up being all the movement manages to get out of it. The system is so rotten and it does not look shakey to me. Instead it is spreading. Nicky Hagar wrote a book called The Hollowmen which used leaked governmental emails, here in New Zealand, to demonstrate how right wing capitalist groups work together internationally to secure their interests. He managed to topple one rightist politician who has since come back to lead another party. While I fully support the occupy movement, I wonder how it can translate into real and effective change when the greed machine is so effective and well established.
      • Nov 4 2011: Joanne
        I so totally agree. As Orlando said yesterday, there has to be sometime for this movement to work a central, clarifying issue. It is going to take work to change this system.
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    Nov 4 2011: First of all Laurens, using the word "blacks" in 2011, is a lack of education of your part ! Afro-African, or Afro-American, is the proper term. We are not a COLOR, we are human being, that have a country and nationality, intellect and voice to say what we please to say, in proper time: Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Barack Obama to name a few...

    So starting by you, you should acknowledge and respect other nationality for their culture, their differences and open your mind to learn, this is what it's all about, learning about other people, not another color. This is a first step to a movement.

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      Nov 4 2011: I guess, then, it depends who you are speaking to - I am not American, and would rather not be called such.

      "Black" on the other hand, is simply the colour of my skin (well, brown, really) and says nothing about cultural expectations or the unity of "an experience".

      I actually prefer "black" - though yes, it would be better to say, "Black people" than just a colour.
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        Nov 4 2011: Please look at my reply to Guillaume Regis on this matter.

        This is a class issue. Capitalism doesn't care about skin color.

        Let me remove the word "blacks". I didn't know people take issue with it. I'm from Europe and I live in Kinshasa, so I don't know the sensititivies in the US.

        Anyways, again, this is a class issue. So let me just keep "the poor" as the reference in the title.
  • Nov 3 2011: I dont know whats the situation in the other occupys world wide but in amsterdam its mainly poor people camping in the protest while the more bourgeois public sleeps at home and show up after work.. its really the people who wont have any other option that spend the night there.. have you any of you actally spend the night in one of these protests or is this discussion just a brief contemplation of you exciting television experiences?
  • Nov 3 2011: And I mean people of every color when I say dressed monkeys, even if the are don't get it wrong because this seems also a very common thing; to fill in parts that are not given, and mostly will be wrong..
  • Nov 3 2011: Maybe because this thing could be some program..maybe. Even if not so, I wouldn't be seen with a bunch of dressed monkeys like the average man nextdoor.

    The thing has something to do with the nature of every person to make sure whatever is there is to make sure.
    In the end you have a tendence that people to sure of whatever, will force you to belief their so called rightiousness whatever it is what could be there to be sure about.

    ..and thou shall work the rest of your life to make a living and/or suffering.

    There's some biological explanation but I don't have time because the need of doing time with my drumsticks (life-sticks to me..).

  • Nov 3 2011: Let us be mindful that Black Americans have been the greatest victims of social injustice in the US. Black Americans were the ones who have led in protesting social inequality and injustice in this county for centuries. Unemployment and social injustice has historically prevailed in Black communities and Blacks have learned how to survive in spite of it. As it pertains to OWS, many Blacks feel the movement is not worth the brutality and racial profiling that is prevalent in this movement. Blacks have historically been victimized by Wallstreet... this is nothing new. The subprime crisis did target Black markets, many of whom were oblivious to the complexity of these agreements and were uneducated to their own detriment.
    Those who are the brightest are occupying their seat at the university which is the greatest opportunity at this present time for Black Americans, especially Black American males. Opportunity has always been marginal among Blacks in the US. Right now the opportunity is education (thanks to POTUS).This is one thing that many cannot blame on the rich. Get your paper, whether the paper is green or white! People suffer not from a lack of jobs, food, money, etc... rather from a lack of knowledge.
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    Nov 3 2011: Those are excellent points that you are talking about and I understand where your coming from.

    For one I agree with you. People protesting is always a good sign, especially when it challenges the status quo. What bothers me about the movement outside of the reasons that mentioned is that the views are so divided amongst the people that are protesting. Although the common interest is to perhaps put an end to capitalism I have friends who are at the Occupy L.A. (there is not much coverage on it) that mentions how divided the movement is. There are anarchist groups, the International Socialist Organization, there are workers and there are people who are just there to protest without knowing why. As great as these protest are, the views are so divided that I fear that change will not come about. Sad to say but I really see this as just another protest and until the litany of perspectives cease to exist, it will remain that way.

    As everyone else on her mentioned another reason why (as you put it) "Blacks and Poor" are not protesting is because there are other things to worry about: family, work, education, income, etc. Everyone is not fortunate to just take a week off and protest and then return back to their families. As sad as this is, this is the reality of the situation and one that the think the government is aware of. Divide and conquer really is something that is valued by the elite, upper class and I truly believe that it is manufactured in a way in which people will continue to be divided in their interest.

    But lets not put a bad spin on this: The Occupy Wall St and L.A. movements are great movements being that it will raise awareness but as someone mentioned before this really has nothing to do with color and it has everything to do with socioeconomic issues.

    I hope this link helps: It raises good questions (plus this guy had the liberty of going out there due to having the time and money to do so)
    • Nov 3 2011: Orlando
      A great link and his basic idea is right. No one bailed out my retirement money. Thanks for adding to the comments. I agree the movement is divided and seems to lose its center every other day. However, maybe it will be enough to begin a real awakening about the economic problems we face.
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        Nov 3 2011: Micheal,

        Oh I agree completely and that is my biggest hope. Having different perspectives is a great thing being that you can learn from someone else. So the different backgrounds is indeed a great thing. But when it comes to social, political and economic movements or reform it is great to have a general, common idea if you really want change. Someone that I talked to tried to compare the civil rights movement with the Occupy Wall St and L.A. movements and state that they were the same which to a degree is not true being that what the civil rights had in common was the issue of racism which many people related to.

        I hope I did not give a bad impression about the Occupy movements. That was not my intention but as mentioned before my biggest hope is that it does awake and inspire everyone to be able to contribute to the movements. As a matter of fact if the movement is still strong by then I'll be attending the Occupy L.A. movement on Sunday and will be staying until about Tuesday since I cannot afford to miss more days at work being that I have to support myself.
        • Nov 3 2011: Orlando
          I never got the idea you were counter the movement. I do think you are right, there is no central issue and no issue that galvanizes working and middle class people. See my post below about the Mexican Revolution and how it started. I do not believe it is anywhere near the civil rights movement.
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      Nov 4 2011: Orlando, I agree, but shouldn't OWS do some effort to "translate" their message to others by direct action, rather than passing through the media?

      I honestly don't think the poor watch or read the news in the same way as the bourgeois class. So the OWSers could go out in poor neighborhoods and ask people to join them. By direct action. Unmediated.
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        Nov 4 2011: Laurens,

        That is actually a great point. I do not disagree with that at all. I honestly do not think the media is a great way to publicize any sort of protest because there is always a spin on it. CNN did this with the whole global warming hoax back in 09 in which the "Global Warming Experts" held a conference in Copenhagen, Denmark (I wish I could find the link for that) and the G-20 Summit that happened in Pittsburgh (

        The reason why I bring these two up is because of how the "poor" would perceive such events. Chomsky once stated something about how the U.S. tries to cultivate obedient citizens to confirm to any form of authority. All they would see in the link that I showed you is how a bunch of young angry individuals is breaking the law and how the Law enforcement is doing their "Job" and maintain stability. It was really funny how CNN news only put a bad stigma on the protest and talked about how the OWS movement is wrong. So yes I agree with you that the media is not a great source of information.

        I am honestly all for direct actions. I've been part of groups that call for direct action, of course this has a bad stigma being that it is thought to advocate violence (I used to be on this one other forum and there was a conversation about direct action and the next thing I knew, the F.B.I. shut down the site to "investigate").

        Getting in touch with our neighbors and informing them of what is really going I think will be much more powerful than simply protesting and hoping to get attention. Once again I really I agree with just about everything you've state on here but I think the real problem is that there are too many conflicting interest. As powerful as OWS may be I do not think it is a movement that will really generate any sort of intimidate change but then again I could be wrong.
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          Nov 4 2011: True that direct action is almost always presented as (a perceived) (precursor to) violence. Direct action is "unmediated", hence it is a threat to media. Because media can't follow such dynamic acts. Direct action will be presented as "terrorism" (perhaps not in these words, but it will be painted as very threatening).
  • Nov 3 2011: Laurens
    You made some great points in your intro. The last paragraph of questions are so difficult to discuss from our perspective.

    In the Mexican Revolution of 1910, it took middle class people fighting to overthrow a tyrant to get the movement moving. Gustavo Madero was no land-sharing, unionist person. Yet, something happened. There was a spark that started in the minds and hearts of miners, factory workers, shop-keepers, and farmers. The first great revolution of the last century did spread to these people and they moved the world. Many would argue that the real revolution was later stolen from these people by bourgeois politicians. While the real poor are struggling to survive, there is still hope that they too will begin speaking out.
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    Nov 3 2011: Working to keep food on the table?

    Afraid of getting whacked over the head with a billy-club?