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.

8 Comments

  1. Nice piece James. I like how you point out the tensions here. However, I would take issue of your characterization of growth of post-industrial global economy. I would not describe its growth as “natural”. Concerted decisions were made from a policy perspective over the last 40 years that encouraged and incentivized behavior that lead to the type of global economic structure we have now. It maybe too late to turn back, but I think it might be more accurate to describe the 99% movement as having a little buyer’s remorse for pursuing this course for so long. They are also upset that they have been unable to change that course because of concerted power that corporations wield over government, which is a point you make quite well. The point here is that corporations have pursued this global economic structure because it serves their bottom line well. So, though it is certainly not just their fault, they played a significant role in building this economy by lobbying governments and international organizations. Again, it might not make much sense now to reverse course, but I disagree that corporations don’t deserve some blame for the anxiety and uncertainty associated with our global economic situation. Ultimately we all do. But the real question is how we should structure and balance the interests of global business and society in today’s economy.

  2. Just to piggyback on Bryan here, while I do agree that the restructuring of the economy is a major factor and difficult to condition, I would disagree that success has been a difficult equation for everyone. From 1980 on it was almost an impossible equation for the bottom quintile, and from 2000 on seems to have become more difficult for the middle class, but the upward transfer of wealth (relative and absolute) from 1980 onwards seems to suggest that success hasn’t been as difficult an equation for the 1% as for everyone else. How can that be dealt with? I don’t know, because you’re right, the market does operate fairly independently. But expressing rage at the increasingly obvious greed in the system (where the 1% function more like corporations than people, at least within the way you’ve described corporations’ interest) is valid and I think important to finding alternatives.

  3. PS The fact that this upward transfer of wealth was intensified at the same time as the dismantling of the regulatory system that had been in place since the 1930s, along with a restructuring of the tax code, in the 1980s and even further catalyzed after the early 2000 tax cuts suggests to me that public policy may have played a larger factor in the dynamics of wealth distribution than your argument seems to give it credit for…

  4. A very interesting take that is not only insightful, but well written as well. I haven’t heard anyone else express this conflict and I think your analysis is spot on.

    I am more cynical than you, however. For many of these protesters it’s not just that they don’t know how to succeed anymore, it’s that as a society we’ve come to define success very differently than our grandparents. We now seem to believe that “success” is a nice house and a nice life with the ability to go out to eat whenever we want and travel whenever we like. Anyone should be able to go from wherever they are economically now to that lifestyle almost immediately (which I would define as within 2-3 years) and there should be little expected of them to accomplish this. My grandfather was a farmer and worked full time at a paper mill. My grandmother worked full time as well. My mom picked tobacco her whole childhood when she wasn’t in school. They worked hard and saved well. They rarely traveled until my parents become missionaries. They had a beach house because my grandfather built it himself. The concept that they would be able to just go to work and get this life free from responsibility and worry never would have occurred to them. They worked hard a sacrificed hoping their kids would have it a little bit better than them.

    While I agree that much of the anger of the Occupy Wall Street crowd is well-deserved, I think much of it comes from a sense that they were owed something by society that they have not received. The Baby Boomers have consistently behaved like entitled children, squandering social security and buying trinkets they didn’t need and couldn’t afford while racking up debt (personal and government) that we will one day be paying back. Their children were raised with the belief that they were special and that good things were coming to them if they got decent grades. The average American family of 4 brings in 48K/yr. They also couldn’t go 2 weeks without income without entering debt. In the history of the US there has never been a time when fewer Americans paid taxes. If you told the average American (or even a wealthy American) that they couldn’t eat out or buy alcohol or afford to buy a home because they have to save for their own retirement they would become indignant. From the lower-middle class (and even some cases the poor) all the way up to the wealthiest Americans there has never been a time of less personal responsibility in our country’s history.

    I truly believe that the system overwhelmingly favors the wealthiest people in America, but I also believe that many of the wealthiest are that way because they sacrificed by working harder and saving more. I think that as a country we have largely lost sight of our poorest, but I also think our middle class thinks they are owed things just because they were born in the US. I think that these protesters are right to feel wronged, but I also think that most of them think someone else should be responsible for bringing them “success”. I’m glad people are holding Wall Street accountable for their sinister and often illegal actions, but it’d be nice if it didn’t feel so hypocritical…

  5. Hey friends, really good thoughts, thanks.

    Bryan, I agree that corporations played their role in creating the global economic system that now bewilders so many citizens. And so did earlier generations of those citizens. And they did it because it was a clear path to wealth. The beginnings of post-WWII globalization were dominated by America. It created the middle-class as we’ve come to know it. And now, ironically, it is eroding it.

    I suppose saying that this sort of globalization is intrinsic to our global marketplace isn’t quite accurate. But if we want a global marketplace, these are the sort of forces we have to deal with. Other options exist, but no one has found one that works very well for very long.

    Johan, I think you point out something that I agree with but didn’t state in this post, and that is that the OWS protest is also a cultural protest. It’s a bunch of Americans looking at these guys who have just made tons of money while draining value out of the US economy and asking, “What the hell? Are you even human?” A good question, I think.

    I think that the disparity between top and bottom earners in the US is a joint product of the corporatization of the state and the dynamics of the global marketplace. Just as middle-class jobs start seeping out of post-industrial economies, new, enormous labor and consumer markets open up that offer huge competitive advantages to corporate decision makers (i.e. the 1%). The bottom and the middle drop, the top rises. And this is accelerated by corporate influence knocking down any governmental barriers to the pursuit.

    Chris, I think your criticism of American entitlement is well-placed. Spending as much time in developing countries as I do, the standards of even lower-middle class American life look pretty comfortable. What with the cable television and video games and Netflix subscription. I agree that somewhere along the line (in fact, right about the time we had a near-monopoly on global industrial trade) we lost the ethic of success through hard work, and created one of success through showing up to work. Everyone deserved a middle class life. But that is shifting now, as the rest of the world starts sharing in the benefits of the global market. I think that, if Americans actually want success as bad as they say they do, it’s going to take a pretty radical renewal of work ethic. And in the meantime, I think we could all do with a few less entertainment options.

  6. Well done James. I think you’ve put my thoughts together nicely for me here. :)

    Truly, you’re right about the two angles here. I hope people focus more on the first and the importance of accountability. It seems to be lost in our current societal model.

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