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The Coffee Summit

Eliot Spitzer talks capitalism with one of the 99 percent.

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Illustration by Tony Millionare  

Last week, New York’s Mattathias Schwartz invited Occupy Wall Street protester Manissa Maharawal, a CUNY graduate student in anthropology, to discuss the movement and its impact over coffee with former New York governor and attorney general Eliot Spitzer. An extended transcript of their conversation is below.

New York: Is Occupy Wall Street about political reform? Or is it about significant changes to capitalism itself?

Manissa Maharawal: I’m firmly anti-capitalist, but I’ve been thinking about the Occupy Wall Street movement as not so much capitalist or anti-capitalist but about how can we think about ourselves outside of capitalism. That’s what we’ve been seeing down at Zuccotti Park. It’s creating modes of being and modes of social interaction that are somewhat outside of capitalism. So value isn’t only about creating wealth or having a job. It’s about creating a community based on shared skills, mutual aid, stuff like that.

Eliot Spitzer: What I think is wonderful about the movement is that at a moment when our political system seems caught within such narrow confines, when the measure of our debate is between Tim Geithner and Hank Paulson, people are saying, hey, wait a minute, that spectrum doesn’t capture what we need to do. Occupy Wall Street is a grassroots manifestation of public dissent that can shift the entire nature of the debate. It’s pretty impressive. But look, I’m a capitalist. Capitalism creates wealth. Over the last ten or fifteen years, the global economy has lifted millions of people out of poverty. It’s also had very significant and often negative effects here; I was one of the first people to say that we should deal with those problems.

MM: I know you worked to reform banking. I know you took on all these cases as attorney general. But the thing is, we’re still here in this moment, you know? We still wound up here, with popular protests around the country talking about economic justice. People like you worked very hard, and we still wound up in this economic crisis, right?

ES: Sure, I agree. So the question is, what do you do?

MM: What people are saying is that we’re tired of trusting all you guys, over there, to deal with all of it. I’m all for Pelosi and Obama and Spitzer taking this up. But Occupy Wall Street is also about a fundamental disconnect from the political process. This question of how I, Manissa, a 28-year-old graduate student, can effect change, instead of just ceding that power. Do you see what I’m saying?

ES: Sure, I understand what you’re saying. But look, I’m 52. I’ve seen—

MM: [Laughs] Now that we’ve all put our ages out there—

ES: I’ve been involved at different points in time, and I understand exactly what you’re saying. I still think that the best way that you’re going to succeed, we’re all going to succeed, is by electing people who reflect what we believe in. The key is finding those candidates.

New York: A lot of people thought they’d found one of those candidates in Barack Obama, but then you had economic advisers like Lawrence Summers coming in, who had made millions on Wall Street the year before. And then there’s the money the finance world has given to Obama.

MM: One of the issues on signs at Occupy Wall Street is “Get Money Out of Politics.” That is part of the popular sentiment.

ES: When I started my show on CNN, the first words out of my mouth were “Mr. President, fire Tim Geithner.” So trust me, I have been at odds with Tim Geithner and Larry Summers and their policy prescriptions from the very beginning. But let me say this in defense of the President. Barack Obama got enormous contributions from Wall Street, sure, but Barack Obama did not say “I got these contributions, therefore I'm putting their guy in the Treasury.” President Obama made a horrendous judgment call, in my view, but I’m not challenging his motivation. Something that’s happened since these protests began to get traction is that the entire conversation about the budget and what government needs to be doing has shifted. For a long time some people, myself included, were saying: “Why this infatuation with the deficit right now, when our social needs are so enormous? We should be investing in education, health care, infrastructure.” Now that conversation has changed. And that’s because of the passion brought to bear by Occupy Wall Street. That is the huge upside of what's happened.

MM: Why weren’t politicians looking at this data and finding solutions before everyone on the ground went out there and started screaming about it?

ES: Because they didn’t understand it. Because they’re wrong. Look, I’m not going to defend them—


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