The Coffee Summit

Illustration by Tony Millionare

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

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

Manissa Maharawal: I’m firmly anti-capitalist, but I’ve been thinking about the OccupyWall Street movement as not so much capitalist or anti-capitalist but about how canwe think about ourselves outside of capitalism. That’s what we’ve been seeing downat Zuccotti Park. It’s creating modes of being and modes of social interaction that aresomewhat outside of capitalism. So value isn’t only about creating wealth or having ajob. 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 whenour political system seems caught within such narrow confines, when the measure of ourdebate 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 grassrootsmanifestation of public dissent that can shift the entire nature of the debate. It’s prettyimpressive. But look, I’m a capitalist. Capitalism creates wealth. Over the last ten orfifteen years, the global economy has lifted millions of people out of poverty. It’s alsohad very significant and often negative effects here; I was one of the first people to saythat we should deal with those problems.

MM: I know you worked to reform banking. I know you took on all these casesas attorney general. But the thing is, we’re still here in this moment, you know? We stillwound 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, overthere, to deal with all of it. I’m all for Pelosi and Obama and Spitzer taking this up. ButOccupy 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 whatyou’re saying. I still think that the best way that you’re going to succeed, we’re all goingto succeed, is by electing people who reflect what we believe in. The key is finding thosecandidates.

New York: A lot of people thought they’d found one of thosecandidates in Barack Obama, but then you had economic advisers like LawrenceSummers coming in, who had made millions on Wall Street the year before. Andthen 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 ofPolitics.” That is part of the popular sentiment.

ES: When I started my show on CNN, the first words out of my mouthwere “Mr. President, fire Tim Geithner.” So trust me, I have been at odds withTim Geithner and Larry Summers and their policy prescriptions from the verybeginning. But let me say this in defense of the President. Barack Obama gotenormous contributions from Wall Street, sure, but Barack Obama did not say “Igot these contributions, therefore I’m putting their guy in the Treasury.” PresidentObama made a horrendous judgment call, in my view, but I’m not challenginghis motivation. Something that’s happened since these protests began to gettraction is that the entire conversation about the budget and what governmentneeds to be doing has shifted. For a long time some people, myself included, weresaying: “Why this infatuation with the deficit right now, when our social needs areso enormous? We should be investing in education, health care, infrastructure.” Nowthat conversation has changed. And that’s because of the passion brought to bear byOccupy Wall Street. That is the huge upside of what’s happened.

MM: Why weren’t politicians looking at this data and finding solutionsbefore 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 notgoing to defend them—

MM: The question I’m trying to raise is whether representative democracyactually works. In Zuccotti Park and wherever else around the country, we feel likeour elected officials failed us because they did not notice all these numbers andthese charts. They did not feel the conditions on the ground, in our lives. So we allhad to get together and yell about this. And some people have noticed. But thatdoesn’t mean they’ve earned our trust back.

ES: Of course not. I’m not saying that it should.

MM: So how do we address this? One of the most important things aboutZuccotti Park and Occupy Wall Street is the form that it takes. It’s not a protest witha leader. It’s not a protest with demands. It’s not even thinking of itself as a protest,necessarily. People are saying we want to address these problems with directdemocracy. We want to start making decisions for ourselves, after having been ignored for so long. And that’s why this is gaining traction.

ES: Look, you’re not going to find anyone who’s more supportive than I amof what’s been going on. But the direct democracy you’re talking about—that’s onlygoing to go so far.

MM: It’s not practical. I know that’s what you’re saying.

New York: Eliot, in your piece for Slate you wrote: “It is a leaderless movement …lacking in subtlety in its political strategies, and marred by fringe elements whosepresence distracts and demeans.” Who are these “fringe elements” ?

ES: I’ll give you an example. There is a TV ad running right now that takesthe outcasts of the people protesting there—people who are screaming things that areracist and way beyond acceptable discourse. Now, this is speech protected by the FirstAmendment. They have the right to say it. The TV ad begins with supportive statementsof the protest from Nancy Pelosi, Obama, and me. Then the ad asks: “Why are theseleaders supporting Occupy Wall Street?” Well, I’m supporting Occupy Wall Street notbecause of fringe groups that are hateful, or racist, or direct venom towards any groupof citizens. And I’m not supporting it because of anti-capitalists, even. Like I said, I’ma capitalist. And anti-capitalists, frankly, I don’t think they understand how wealthis created. The question is how you create a capitalist system that works. Many of ushave been pushing very hard to do that. We’ve been challenging this philosophy ofderegulation coming from everyone from Alan Greenspan from Harvey Pitt to formerPresident Bush. We’ve been saying that’s the wrong way to go.

MM: So we’re in agreement on reasons why we support this. Around the world,people feel alienated from the political process.

ES: Alienation is an interesting word. It’s freighted with all sorts ofconnotations.

MM: What’s wrong with alienation?

ES: Well, here in the U.S. at least, the people are not alienated from thepolitical process as such. But they feel alienated from the outcomes we’ve been getting.When Barack Obama ran in 2008, there was this enormous emotional outpouringof support, this feeling that within our political process, perhaps we had generated amovement for change. Define change however you wish. There’s been disappointmentin what’s happened thereafter. But what we’re seeing in Occupy Wall Street is part ofthe political process. That’s what’s so wonderful about it. Grassroots politics changesAmerica more than traditional politics through the ballot box. Grassroots politics iswhere the environmental movement came from, the labor movement, the women’s rightsmovement—

MM: What do you mean when you say that Occupy Wall Street is part of the political process?

ES: I mean it’s a welling up of citizens who are getting together, articulatinga view, saying “we’re not being heard, we want to change the structure in a particularway.” Go through our history. Any one of the major social movements began thisway. Elected officials came later in the process. So yes, there is alienation. But it’s notalienation from politics.

New York: Manissa, do you vote?

MM: Yes, I vote, but voting is a complicated moment for me. Voting forme feels like, “Okay, thanks, government, for giving me one day when I can expressmyself.” I get to express myself by choosing between people who all look the sameonce they get into office, and who have all these interests behind them. What’s differentat Zuccotti Park is that the people down there are actively trying to engage in directdemocracy.

ES: By which you mean what?

MM: I don’t know how much you know about the process of consensusdecision-making—

ES: I know all that. I think it’s wonderful. But look, voting is our mechanismfor changing government. Government has not done what we believe it should do for amultitude of reasons, like gerrymandering and campaign finance. You’re not going tofind anyone who’s more supportive than I am of what’s been going on. But the directdemocracy you’re talking about—that’s only going to go so far. I go back to Churchill.Democracy is the worst system, except for all the others. It’s the best system we’ve got.

MM: You think representative democracy is the best system we’ve got?

ES: Yes! I say that without any hesitation. Because it works. It works.

MM: But it hasn’t worked. That’s why we’re here. The people at Zuccotti Parkbelieve the system is broken. They see this huge inequality. That you can go to collegeand not be guaranteed a job at all. That our life prospects are very slim. People don’t feelrepresented.

ES: You’re mixing a lot of issues. Let’s be a bit more rigorous with ourthinking. Globalization, the fact that we’re now competing in the world—many peoplethink this is a good thing. Two billion additional people are part of the economic systemthat, until thirty years ago, was uniquely ours. The good news about that is that manymore people, over time, will participate in the upside. The downside is that we here arefinding the terms of our own engagement shifting away in a way that many of us findunfair. That is separate from campaign finance. Yes, they’re indirectly related, but you have to separate the issues that you focus on.

MM: At Occupy Wall Street, or occupy anywhere, people don’t see these asseparate issues.

New York: Eliot, right before you got here, Manissa asked, “Arewe making them nervous?” Can you give us some perspective on how Wall Street mightbe perceiving this movement?

ES: Let me say this—and don’t forget, I was not exactly Wall Street’sfavorite—finance is an important part of our lives. The question is how you do it. Thenotion of being able to borrow money, to put money into a checking account, to earninterest, to borrow in order to buy a house or set up a business—this is what makes thingshappen and work.

New York: Is that what the U.S. financial system actually does?

ES: That’s the issue. Has the finance system become something else? Is itnow a process of creating things like CDOs-squared, mechanisms to gamble as opposedto using finance properly? A guy like Paul Volcker, an extremely wise person, hewould say, “Wait a minute, guys, here’s how we need to reform it.” Now, Volcker is asEstablishment as you can get—he was chairman of the Fed for umpteen years, right?He’s a banker, through and through. But he understands what needs to be done. And soyou can’t really generalize about how they feel.

MM: The discussion at Occupy Wall Street is dramatically different from thisdiscussion. Sure, there are a lot of people who are thinking about how to reform thesystem. But there are also a lot of people asking why all of their value has to do with theiremployment or how much money they make?

ES: Can I say this? People shouldn’t think of themselves that way. There aresome people who are always going to value themselves based upon the size of theirpaycheck. That’s their choice.

MM: The value of my paycheck, it also has to do with how much power I havein the world, right? Money and power—these things are very connected. Occupy WallStreet is trying to disconnect the two.

ES: Let me ask you a question. Looking at the last century, who do you thinkhas been an effective voice for these values?

MM: This movement does not necessarily have a historical precedent. Themovements in Spain in Greece are thinking about the same questions we are. Questionslike, How do we create communities that aren’t based on capital and valuing things interms of money? How do you create those sorts of communities? That’s what is excitingabout being in a space like Zuccotti Park: It’s a place where you have the chance to radically reimagine the world.

New York: How are you reimagining it?

MM: It’s saying: We’re actually here in this space. We’re going to try andfigure out our problems ourselves. How to run a country of 300 million people like thatis an open-ended question. But I think talking; letting people make decisions about theirown lives; letting people take part in local, neighborhood forms of governance—these aresome ways to start.

ES: Look, some people tried to dismiss this movement early on becauseit doesn’t have specific demands. I said that was irrelevant. The point now is to bespeaking with passion about dissatisfaction and setting an agenda for the conversation.But eventually, to succeed, you do need to have some sense of how you change things.Otherwise you’re going around in a circle.

MM: Success means different things to different people—

ES: —at different points in time—

MM: What Occupy Wall Street has already done is create a space for peopleto come together and voice dissent in a way that has not been possible in this city, orthis country, for a long time.

ES: I agree. [Looks at watch] Five more minutes. Then I have to get back tomy office. [Jokingly] I have an office. I apologize.

MM: I have to teach. I teach this evening.

ES: Where do you teach?

MM: I teach at Baruch College.

ES: I teach at CCNY.

MM: Oh, okay. So we’re in the same system. As I was saying, one of thereasons this movement has been without demands is because without demands wecan shift. The moment you have a list of demands, you have politicians take all ofthose demands and explain to you why they aren’t going to work.

ES: But in order to turn this into something other than a visceral cry of despair,you need to figure out how to confront the actual problems and issues. You need tothink about all of this more rigorously. If you’re down in Zuccotti Park six months fromnow, having made it through a cold winter, I’m not sure whether you would deem thatsuccess. Trust me, the media won’t be paying as much attention six months from now if it’s just the same couple hundred people, right? I’ve been defending these protests andbeing supportive and saying that this is great. But saying all those things doesn’t precludeyou from recognizing that, just as with a chess game, there’s got to be a next move. Letme ask you this. Think about the civil rights movement, the Vietnam-era anti-warmovement, the labor movement, the women’s rights movement, any of the socialmovements of the last hundred years. Do you see an analog that would take youtowards where you hope to end up?

MM: I’m not sure how to …

ES: Look, I’m not a historian. But if you’re going to understand how socialchange happens, I think those movements are where you have to look, those timeswhen the levers of political power and economic power converge around sharedvalues.

MM: Of course people are drawing from our rich history of socialmovements. But there is something different about this one. The form of thismovement is very different from all those earlier movements you mentioned. Wheredoes it go? I don’t know. I can’t say where it’s going.

The Coffee Summit