The Conflicting Conflicts of Occupy Wall Street


(original image from _PaulS_ on flickr)

If I were in America right now, I’d want to be at the Occupy Wall Street protest. Rarely in America do people demonstrate with this sort of commitment. It’s a sign of a great and growing discontent in our nation, and one needs to be understood and addressed.

That discontent, I think, comes from two sources: The corporatization of the state, and the post-industrial uncertainty of our global economy. The first is worthy of protest, the second might sink the movement.

The first source of discontent is a legitimate dissatisfaction with the corporatization of the US government and the nation as a whole. Large corporations wield enormous global economic and political power, which continues to grow. And thanks to donations, lobbyists, and the rotating door between government and corporate management, our government has less and less incentive to effectively regulate them, and more and more incentive to appease them.

Corporations are not evil. What they are is single-minded. They seek profit. That’s it. People, on the other hand, are multi-faceted. We care about profit too, but we also care about our children’s health and our retirement and fair treatment of other people. So when corporations are allowed to seek profit to the detriment of these other concerns, then citizens are rightly offended. And government should be spurred to action.

The second source of discontent is different. It’s not the fault of corporations or government, or bankers or fund managers or boards of directors. It’s the natural result of economic forces that are intrinsic to our global marketplace. This discontent is best summed up by the following complaint: We no longer know how to succeed.

For decades now a college degree was a pretty surefire ticket to a good job. And a good job was a pretty solid step towards a successful career. A western head start on industrialization and global distribution paved this well-worn highway to retirement. But things have changed. The promises we made ourselves – that if we get a good degree, show up on time, work hard, and start a retirement account then we’ll live the American dream – have been broken.

Our post-industrial economy demands something different. It demands creativity and emotional labor and entrepreneurial spirit. And there’s no clear formula yet for success. There might never be. So people feel scared and uncertain and betrayed, and understandably so. But this is not the fault or corporations or governments. This is economics. And no matter how much people protest this change, it’s not going to be reversed. Indeed there might be nothing short of complete isolationism that would reverse this trend. The more the protestors and 99%-ers focus on this discontent, the less chance they will have of making change.