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  October 23, 2011

Should Banks be a Public Utility?

Leo Panitch: The Occupy movement should adopt the demand for banking in the public interest which challenges the system
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Leo Panitch is the Senior Scholar and Emeritus Professor of Political Science at York University. He is the author of many books, the most recent of which include UK Deutscher Memorial Prize winner The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, In and Out of Crisis: The Global Financial Meltdown and Left Alternatives, , Renewing Socialism: Democracy, Strategy and Imagination and The End of Parliamentary Socialism: From New Left to New Labour. He is also a co-editor of the Socialist Register, whose 2017 volume, which will be released in time for the Labour Party Conference and launched in London in November, is entitled Rethinking Revolution


Should Banks be a Public Utility?PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I'm Paul Jay in Washington. I was in New York a few days ago. I visited Liberty Plaza. And then we're eating at a restaurant outside, and a couple of guys came over, and they sort of rap for a living--as you sit in a restaurant, they do a rap, and they hope you give them some money. So I said, okay, do a rap about what's going on with the Occupy Wall Street. So one of the fellows starts the rap. The other guy's doing the noise. And I will shoot myself for not filming this. But at any rate, the rap sort of begins with, you know, we love what you're doing--and I'm not going to try to do the rap, 'cause I can't remember the rhyme, but the next line was: but they got no demands. We want to know what they want. They got no demands. And this was this guy rapping for living on the street. So now joining us to talk about the Occupy Wall Street and this whole debate around demands is Leo Panitch. Leo joins us from Toronto, but he was recently in New York. And he is the Canada research chair in comparative political economy at York University. And he's also the editor of Socialist Register, which just came out, called The Crisis and the Left. He joins us from Toronto.


JAY: So, first of all, your impression--.

PANITCH: Great intro.

JAY: What's that?

PANITCH: That was a great intro.

JAY: It would've been better if I could have done the rhyming. But anyway. So you were just in New York and you visited the occupation. So what's your--what were your impressions? And then, what do you make of this whole issue of demands?

PANITCH: Well, I was very impressed, I have to say. And I--when I went down there, I was initially very skeptical. You know, I--Adbusters, which initiated this, their only politics is to do an analysis of the world in terms of everything went wrong back in the late 19th century when the American court said that corporations were a legal personality, and the implication being, usually, in their case, that if you just took that away, the world would be fine. So I was skeptical for that kind of reason. I was also skeptical because the turnout wasn't that great initially. But thirdly, I was skeptical for the same reasons that you're raising, which is, you know, what are they demanding, what do they want, what do they stand for. But then, when I went on the march, when the teachers union and the transit union in New York joined them for a march from Foley Square, which is in front of the municipal building, along Broadway and then into the square, which is two blocks from Wall Street, the energy was remarkable, and I began to reconsider as to whether the issue here is demands. It is very, very clear that this is a very broad and disparate set of people, but they are saying the system is screwed up. And I think there's a big implication in what's happening here of there being a politics around we want a different kind of society, we want a different kind of economy. And although I don't think it hurts to try to concretize that, I worry now that to come up with a set of reforms that people would like to see introduced will reduce the movement, will make it smaller, and won't yield more results. It'll just make it sound more practical in the sense of, well, the Democrats might do this, whereas in fact the movement is much bigger than that and is saying that, at every level, in terms of culture, in terms of the economy, in terms of the political system, we need radical and fundamental change.

JAY: Well, it seems to me the strength of the occupation movement is also its weakness. The fact that there aren't concrete demands, as such, that have to be agreed to means just about anybody can show up if they agree with the fundamental critique, which is essentially, like, if you say the problem's corporate greed, that is a way, you could say, of making a systemic critique that the whole thing's not working. On the other hand, at some point, if you're going to mobilize more people, broader sections of the population, like this guy on the street who's rapping, they want something to fight for, not just to fight against. So, I mean, there's going to be some kind of arc to this.

PANITCH: Yeah, I see your point, but the movements that have made change in the past can be pretty vague on wanting a different world, a different system. To some extent they're going to hearken back to what they had before that the current system can't give them anymore. I see your point, but I--and I do think that it's important to try to concretize what a different system would mean, but I don't think it's a bad thing that the thing be put in the largest terms. Let me give you two examples at either extreme. One example is what was being handed out on the day of the big march with the unions, was a one-page broadsheet laying out a plan being put forward by a black congressman to have a 21st-century version of the Humphrey /' bill. That was a bill back in the mid-1970s that called for economic planning for full employment. And as they concretized that in this broadsheet, it would have meant a very large financial transaction tax on the financial sector, which would yield some billions of dollars a year, which would be then passed over to state and local governments, who would employ people directly in public services--fixing up schools, roads, etc., etc., the people--that employ people who've been unemployed for longer than x number of months. That's a very good, concrete proposal, and in some ways a doable one. And that's good. I have no--I'm not opposed to that at all. On the other hand, I saw a woman interviewed, a gray-haired woman, I would imagine her late '50s, who had been a candidate for the Green Party, on one of the cable New York television stations, and she was asked what it all stood for. Do you want reforms or do you want another system? And she said, well, you know, I spent my whole life trying to win reforms, and I've come to the conclusion that we really need a different kind of system, call it socialism, call it communism. This was a Green candidate. Now, she said, I don't know quite how to get there, but I think the important thing is for us to say that we need a different kind of system, rather than reforms within this one. And that was, I must say, a remarkable breath of fresh air in the American media when I heard that.

JAY: Well, one of the things that sort of, I think, separates some demands from other demands, and even some discourse from other discourse, is there's a lot of talk about the 1 percent, the distribution of income, the inequality of distribution of income, but there's not a heck of a lot of conversation about how stuff is owned, who owns stuff, and how to challenge that, because I don't get how you challenge the power of Wall Street if you don't start to challenge how things are owned. And you were one of the first people--that I know of, at least--that has been talking about public banking, banks as a public utility, banks in the public interest. That seems to me that that's an example of a demand that's not only imaginable as something that's needed now, but it also starts to look--you know, challenge things systemically.

PANITCH: Yeah, no, I of course entirely agree, Paul, and I very much hope that that kind of purpose and vision and understanding of the system will develop through the movement. And, yes, I think very much--I think it links up partly with the proposal for this new employment act, but it needs to be put in a way that somehow gets the savings that now passes through the banking system into the public domain, whereby financial institutions are public utilities. So, you know, a financial transaction tax is not in itself going to lay the basis for the type of full employment that we need, and it won't allow for the type of economic planning that will allow us to decide democratically what's invested, how it's invested, where it's invested, and so on. So I think very much one wants to take this kind of notion that you're not going to get out of this massive stagnation with all of this unemployment unless there is public employment. That said, we would like that to be done as democratically as possible. So we probably ought to have locally directly elected job boards or economic planning boards who would be given access to the savings that pass now through the private banking system. For that, you would have to have the banks as public utilities. And one hopes that that type of vision which concretizes what it would mean to contemplate a socialist society, not as some abstraction, not some--as some, well, you know, we want Sweden or we don't want the Soviet Union, etc., but actually comes forward with, yes, I think what you're talking about, a concrete institutional vision that would allow people to think democratically about sharing the wealth in a very concrete and productive way.

JAY: Now, one thing I'm kind of wondering why the mainstream media has so covered this Occupy movement. I've never seen anything left, progressive, oppositional that gets such attention. It's really remarkable--from Toronto to New York and further afield. What do you make of the way the media and the political class is responding to this?

PANITCH: It's absolutely astonishing. It needs an explanation. And probably you, being such a close observer and participant in the media, have a better explanation than I do. I notice--I'll just say this--that The New York Times clearly made an editorial decision, about 10, 12 days into the occupation, that it was going to get behind it, that it was going to cover it sympathetically rather than cynically, which is what it did in the first 10 days. And then it started giving it an enormous amount of coverage and started giving it, on the whole, sympathetic coverage. Now, you know, one would need to figure out why The New York Times decided that. I think it had something to do with the fact that they were taking a progressive position in their editorials on the need to stop this business about austerity, to not concentrate on the size of the deficit, and to have a massive stimulus again, bigger than in 2009. And then I think they realized that if that was actually going to go anywhere, it needed a movement behind it, not just liberal newspaper opinion. And I think they made it--now, when The New York Times starts coverage that way--it is, after all, the official newspaper of the United States--it then has an effect on the rest of the media. Certainly, we know here in Canada that the CBC, let alone the private media channels, only say progressive things when The New York Times says progressive things. When The New York Times says reactionary things, the CBC runs under the table as well.

JAY: Yeah. I'm speculating here, but I would think one reason for it is that this has taken the heat out of whatever was left of the Tea Party movement, in terms of expressing opposition and anger, and now it's taking it up from a sort of left-of-center position, which I would think the Democratic Party hopes will be able to somehow use to fuel the 2012 election campaign, even though when you go down there and talk to people, that's certainly not what they want in the occupations. But perhaps that's a hope the Democratic Party and its allies have.

PANITCH: Yeah, I think that's right. I think there's something else. I think there's just the bare facts of the situation, which is that polls have been showing all along that 70 percent of Americans don't want the Tea Party option, don't even want the Republican Party option in terms of giving a priority to not paying taxes. The polls have been consistently showing that the Tea Partiers, and for that matter the, you know, Wall Street Republicans, do not carry the majority of opinion with them. That's very clear. And I think that when this movement started, then, going and attracting more attention, etc., I think that the liberal media realized that this was--for all of the fact that there were, you know, lifestyle anarchists there, etc., that this was far more expressive of what people really think than, you know, what Fox News was telling what people think. And so I think there was just a certain recognition of reality here.

JAY: Well, I think we're just--. Yeah, go ahead.

PANITCH: You know, which I think the media will respond to, when they see that there is a movement that is in tune with what public opinion polls are showing.

JAY: Well, if we're heading into a decade of global recession, which a lot of economists are predicting, I guess this is just the beginning of a process.

PANITCH: Yes, I think that's right. And one hopes that this will be the kind of process that--what the civil rights movement was or the welfare rights movement was or the women's movement was. And I think it would be very good for you to talk to the great American social theorist and historian on these movements, who is Frances Fox Piven. I saw her speak not very far from Zuccotti place, and she's spoken here as well, but gave a remarkable talk in relation to a book she just published called Who's Afraid of Frances Fox Piven, because she was the object of attack--Glenn Beck and Fox News, etc.--for a year. And she made the point that, you know, you need to remember that the first bus boycotts were going on in 1955, and then things petered out for a while, and then they picked up again a couple of years later. And we may see a bit of a downturn here. It doesn't have to keep on becoming a greater protest each week. But if we look at this as a continuum, just taking the United States, for example, so that, you know, there was Wisconsin and the occupation of the government buildings, and then there was a petering out--including me, including many other people, thought, well, that's it. But I think this is part of a general willingness on the part of more and more people to stand up and to engage in even disruptive, although not violent, political protest in order--given the absence of political institutions that can change the system, in order to begin a process of changing the system.

JAY: Yeah, there's a--definitely when I was down there, both in New York and in Washington, there is just a yearning for a mass movement in the United States, and people are just looking for it. So any bubbling of it causes great excitement.

PANITCH: Yeah, I think that's absolutely right.

JAY: Thanks for joining us, Leo.

PANITCH: Good to talk with you, as always, Paul.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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