Essay written for Introduction to American Studies 10AC: Culture Wars
University of California at Berkeley
April 26, 2012
The photograph captures a protest scene from “Occupy Wall Street” in New York City on October 5th
, 2011. The image exhibits the economic critique of societal hierarchy – the proverbial ’99 percent’ versus the ‘1 percent’ - professed by the Occupy Movement. The photograph’s feature display is the political placard equating Obama with Bush. The seemingly outlandish comparison reflects how the Occupy Movement is separate from the ‘Beltway’ battles of the political mainstream. American presidential politics, operating within the cable news bubble of Washington D.C., is mostly concerned with media personalities and surface images, rather than actual political philosophy and economic ideology. The Occupy protest sign rejects the mass-mediated narrative of Obama as figure of change, situating the economic advisors and policies of the Obama Administration as part of the same ‘neoliberal’ political structure that existed under George Bush, and every president dating back to Ronald Reagan. The aforementioned leftist analysis of the Obama administration is not foreign to the popular culture landscape of America. The film, Inside Job
, which earned the Oscar for Best Documentary, advanced a similar reading of Obama’s economic policy team. Supporting the claim of the Occupy protestor, the documentary revealed Obama’s secretarial staff, including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and former Director of the National Economic Council Larry Summers, to be the same Wall Street-Washington D.C. insiders who de-regulated the financial industry in the 1980s and 1990s. Conversely, the photograph accentuates its populist historical analysis of the United State’s recent political economic history through the geographic dynamic between the protest signage and its adjacent scenery.
The location of the cardboard placard above the colonnades of the New York Federal Reserve building portrays the underlying dynamics of the ‘1 percent’ in America. The Grecian columns of the building appear to be propping up the names of ‘Obama’ and ‘Bush,’ visually relating to the critique that the financial lobby is the true political party of the United States. In addition, the relatively hidden aspect of the Federal Reserve building within the maze of protestors and signs details the rather secretive nature of the central bank’s economic authority. Thus, the visual relationship between the sign and the Federal Reserve building portrays the ‘1 percent’ as buttressed by a bipartisan neoliberal political structure, whose legislative agenda emanates from the economic interests of global financial capital.
The protestors that occupy the photograph further showcase the populist economic ideology and non-partisan philosophy of the Occupy Movement. The two most prominent protestors in the photo are the man lifting up the aforementioned ‘Obama = Bush’ placard and the woman standing behind him. Both of these protestors are white and middle-aged. While some would claim their ‘whiteness’ as representative of the often-reported demographic homogeneity of the Occupy Movement, their whiteness also displays the equal opportunity economic destruction wrought by the Great Recession. In addition, the age of the protestors featured in the photograph also denotes how the economic inequality in American society is destroying the meritocratic ideal of social mobility, leaving younger generations with a worse economic stature than their parents and grandparents. The placement of the protestors within the visual text of the photograph additionally associates the Occupy Movement as a populist counterweight to the perceived plutocratic establishment of Wall Street and Washington D.C. Moreover, the two central protestors are located beneath both the political protest sign and the Federal Reserve building, visually positioning the Occupy Movement’s ’99 percent’ to rise up against a generation of economic degradation orchestrated by board members of the Federal Reserve and sanctioned by both Democrat and Republican presidents.
The other two visible signs in the photograph, one declaring “We are the 99%” and the other proclaiming “Jobs Now,” synthesize the common sense and populism of the Occupy Movement. The ‘We are the 99%’ banner typifies the popular progressivism of the Occupy Wall Street, while the ‘Jobs Now’ slogan depicts how economic recovery is the central aim of the protest movement. In addition, these two posters are ‘finished products,’ in contrast to the ‘Obama = Bush’ sign, which is made out of a ripped piece of cardboard. The inter-textual difference in signage appearance conveys the debate within the Occupy Wall Street movement between Obama sympathizers and Obama critics. Moreover, the polished ‘Jobs Now’ and ‘We Are the 99%’ signs, while they are both declarations of the need for economic recovery and the reversal of income inequality, neatly escape overt references to the political system, and thus are more palatable and presentable to the American Left. The torn-up cardboard, on the other hand, communicates a working-class critique of Obama’s role in the economic crisis. By equating Obama and Bush, the protestor dismisses the liberal fear of seeming opposed to a Democrat president. His sign connects the reality of economic inequality to both the Democratic and Republican parties’ policy regime of neoliberalism.
The consistent economic critique explored through the dynamics of the photograph bears to eye the initial rush of popular enthusiasm engendered by the Occupy Movement. Additionally, the photo demarcates the Obama Administration as partially responsible for the economic crisis, associating the well-documented failures of George W. Bush with Barack Obama’s failed attempts to stimulate the economy and to re-regulate and prosecute the financial industry. In conclusion, the photograph documents how America has lost its hope in Obama’s ability to change the politics and economic structure of the country due to his administration’s complicity with the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout scheme and the macroeconomic philosophy of neoliberalism.
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