Promises Were Broken
In a recent guest post, Aaron B. pointed out that the Occupy Wall Street movement is, perhaps more than anything else, about forging a shared political identity and civic community. And Shawn Gude later applauded the occupiers for, “instantiating a radical conception of democracy that is antithetical to the prevailing minimalist conception.”
These are both important points that shouldn’t be ignored. Establishment conservatives and liberal elites alike have been quick to judge and degrade the youth populism for being disorganized, politically naïve, and poor messaging. But Glenn Greenwald defends the fledgling movement (with a follow-up post here):
“Personally, I think there’s substantial value even in those protests that lack ‘exit goals’ and ‘messaging strategies’ and the rest of the platitudes from Power Point presentations by mid-level functionaries at corporate conferences. Some injustices simply need anger and dissent expressed for its own sake, to make clear that there are citizens who are aware of it and do not accept it.”
The movement, to the degree that it exists as a coordinated effort, is already putting out its own publication and smaller protests are popping up in other cities, including many in the Mid-West. But it’s not clear how far beyond simple anger and dissent the protests can go.
“When you mine these testimonies for a theme, one comes into clear focus. We’re living in an era of broken promises between institutions and people. A college degree is supposed to lead to a quality job. Instead, for this young mother, it leads to debt. A $800 billion stimulus is supposed to lead to a recovery. Instead, for the U.S., it leads to debt. An economy, built by business leaders and supported by Wall Street, is supposed create wealth that the middle class can touch. Instead, once again, it has produced a culture of debt. There is a pervasive sense that this is not how the social contract was supposed to work. Promises were broken. Somebody should pay.”
And yet, he notes, the very problems that are forcing some of the 99% out into the streets are the least likely to be readily solvable:
“Maybe the right question is: What should this expecting mother, and people like her — this Wall Street protest, this 99 Percent movement — expect from Washington? What should they ask for? Higher taxes for the rich. More income redistribution. Stiffer regulations for Wall Street. These are worthy progressive causes, but I don’t know that they’ll make health care any cheaper or entry-level jobs more plentiful. The protesters are asking questions whose answers won’t fit on their signs.”
As economic trends that have been decades in the making are set into overdrive because of the recession, it’s no longer clear how long the current social arrangement can be maintained. On the current path more jobs will leave this country and more people at the lower end of the economic ladder will be working for lower wages, without benefits, if they are fortunate enough to work at all. The problem isn’t that a small part of the population is exorbitantly wealthy. Though the envy and resentment fueled by that inequality are necessary ingredients for addressing the current imbalance, redistributing income won’t alter the actual structure of the economy.
And no matter what neoliberals say, there are structural problems underlying our weak economy. Inadequate aggregate demand may be the immediate issue, but the reason why demand is so weak to begin with is because of a global hollowing out of the middle class that has been going on for some time. The present economy just can’t sustain it anymore.
If the Occupy Wall Street movement were to grow into massive protests around the nation, there’s still no reason to think that this will bring about positive change because there’s little reason to believe that any one institution, or set of institutions, even has the capacity to do so.
The economic forces that are overwhelming individuals are for the most part too large for individual nations to control as well. So while it’s clear that something is rotten in the state of America, no one as of yet has been able to articulate a holistic vision for how positive change can be implemented. As a result, bickering about the precise demands being made by Occupiers seems fruitless.
Which takes us back to the humanizing purpose of the movement. As large global and impersonal economic forces degrade individual agency, calls to Occupy Wall Street serve a social function. Even if the movement fails to empower individuals, the democratic act itself can lead to genuine human interaction and meaning community.
Even after you strip away the politics of the Arab Spring, there is something amazing and simple about the shared sense of purpose that arises from collective action like that. Whether or not it’s successful, there is an element of the Occupy Wall Street movement that appeals to me on a very basic level. Despite its many material benefits, the hyper capitalism of the past few decades has left an already weak public sphere even more fragmented. Something in its transactional and quantitative mechanism has helped liberate individuals from religion, tradition, and community while making them dependent on sterile economic relations.
At the end of the day, Occupy Wall Street isn’t about exacting minimal policy concessions from Democratic politicians or reorienting the national conversation away from the Republican terms of debate. Rather, it’s an attempt by alienated individuals to do something meaningful. This sounds trite, but it’s no small task. Every community tie, human institution, and public good that has been sacrificed over the past few decades was made for the economy and the promise of a future of material comfort and shared prosperity. With nothing in the American Dream piggy bank but an IOU, the moral, social, and civic deficits that have been building up for some time can’t be paid off by the economy any longer. Critics need to look at the movement not in the cold, calculating terms of transaction based politics, but as a human endeavor that seeks to address human problems. Many have mocked the movement for small mindedly calling out the “greed” of the 1%. And yet problems of character like this are precisely what social protest is meant to address. If self-regulation fails, and government regulation is inadequate, raw, social condemnation is the only thing left.