I’ve been thinking about the Occupy Wall Street movement and where it might lead. Up until today I entertained the view Chris Hedges expresses in the interview below, that we may reach some sort of tipping point where the police “cross the line” and refuse to follow orders (to disband protest encampments), leading to who knows what (revolution? new government?).
The more I thought about this possibility, the less likely this scenario seemed. Why?
- there is no national force involved in policing or controlling the Occupy Wall Street protests — local law enforcement groups are likely to handle situations differently — if one police department lays down their weapons or walks off the job, it’s quite possible they’ll be the only group doing so
- there is no dictator to overthrow, no wall to come down, no obvious target of oppression
- while the majority of U.S. citizens are unhappy with their government, there is little consensus regarding what would constitute an improvement (there are many ideas but little agreement)
- while many Americans sympathize with the OWS movement, there is very little appetite for radical action, overthrowing the government, rioting, etc.
Still, the OWS movement presages a massive political shift in this country. Since we already have a democracy (albeit a dysfunctional one, overly influenced by corporate lobbyists), I think this change will ultimately play out via the voting booth, and the anticipation of how citizens will cast their votes.
The Jig Is Up
The main effect of the OWS movement is to reframe how people think about the distribution of power.
For decades the power elite (those on the boards of powerful corporations — especially banks and investment firms, the mega-rich, political office holders, and the world’s remaining monarchs) have obscured the extent of their power and influence. They have done this mostly by distracting the electorate with “social issues.” Because people tend to disagree on questions such as abortion, the existence or non-existence of God, prayer in schools, the legitimacy of gay marriage, and immigration law, these issues are perfect foils for those who wish to pull attention away from issues like massive income inequality and corporate malfeasance.
With social issues, the power elite can manipulate the electorate to “cancel each other out.” When it comes to economic inequality and fairness, the split is not so even. Almost everyone is against corporations getting away with murder. Almost everyone sees the unfairness in the vast slice of the wealth pie controlled by the 1% (and even more so, the top half of the 1%).
It’s not that social issues aren’t important. I have my own opinions; I’m pro-choice, I think gay marriage should be legalized on a national level, I think seasonal workers from Mexico should be given work visas so they can cross the border freely, I think we should massively increase H1B visas and convert as many of those highly-skilled and ambitious tech workers into U.S. citizens as we can, I believe in freedom of religion but that no religious practice should ever be mandatory, etc. In other words I’m a liberal progressive, and approximately 50% of the country disagrees with me across the board on those issues.
The power elite have maintained their stranglehold on power by distracting the electorate with these highly emotional, polarizing issues. Issues of corporate personhood, banking regulation, and limitations on lobbyists have remained in the background.
The jig is up. People have seen the graphs, and are starting to understand just how radically concentrated wealth and resources are, not just in the U.S. but around the world.
They also understand that corporations, especially banks, don’t play by the same rules as everyone else. When they make risky bets and win, they keep the money. When they lose, they take the tax-payer’s money.
The cynicism of the mega-rich has bitten them in the ass — they’ve been too greedy for too long. They’ve quietly skimmed tax-payer money in the form of bail-outs, subsidies, tax breaks, legal loopholes, raiding the commons (polluting, wreaking environmental havoc), no-bid government contracts, and outright theft.
But the electorate is waking up. Discussions of raising taxes on the mega-rich, corporate charter reform, and stricter banking regulation are no longer off the table.
Short-Term Consequences of Occupy Wall Street
Physically, in real space, I think the protests will probably continue right up until the general election, with significant tapering off. There will probably be more confrontations with police that will increase sympathy and even solidarity with the OWS movement. Most mayors, however, will probably take a lesson from Jean Quan’s massive blunder and do their best to avoid direct, violent confrontations with protestors.
Psychologically, the main event has already occurred. Topics like income inequality, banking regulations, and more progressive tax structures are on the front pages of newspapers and blogs, and the subject of many more dinner table conversations.
Am I expecting some massive liberal sea change this election season? No — the Democrats in power are largely sympathetic to corporate interests and they are the power elite as much as the Republicans are. Still, the Obama administration holds the interests of working Americans higher than did the Bush administrations. Maybe if Obama renews his commitment to help working Americans, he can get re-elected. Congress will probably stay Republican, and we’ll have four more years of gridlock.
Things get really interesting if you combine increased awareness of income inequality and international banking scams (from Occupy Wall Street, books like The Big Short, and movies like Inside Job), with demographic shifts that will occur in the next 10 to 20 years.
In short, social conservatives are going to die off, and the younger electorate will not be so easily distracted or divided by these issues. For example, in California the general electorate is evenly split on the issue of gay marriage. But younger voters are for legalizing gay marriage by a margin of 3 to 1! That’s an enormous difference. Generations X, Y, and Z are generally more socially progressive than the Boomers and the Greatest Generation.
This might be hard to imagine, but consider that people no longer “debate” things like:
- should women be allowed to vote?
- should non-whites be allowed to vote?
- should non-property owners be allowed to vote?
- should slavery be legal?
These hard-fought gains are now givens, and are no longer “up for discussion” except among marginalized extremists. Gay marriage will eventually be the same.
Unless the United States tilts in a fascist direction, we’ll see a greater focus on both economic fairness and on effective economic policy backed by empirical evidence (systems and policies that have worked in the past).
On the other hand, maybe the infernally clever banking industry and other power elites will find other social issues to distract and evenly divide the newly progressive electorate, things like:
- should confining and killing sentient animals for food be legal?
- should sentient computer programs be allowed to vote?
I don’t think progress is inevitable, or uni-directional, but like Hans Rosling and Steven Pinker, I think there is a general trend towards better quality of life, more fairness, and less violence. Chris Hedges takes the opposite view, and doesn’t believe in progress. As insightful and intelligent as Hedges is, I think his worldview is overly influenced by spending twenty years as a war correspondent (his book War Is Force That Gives Us Meaning is a fascinating read).
It’s easy to feel discouraged and powerless in the face of the enormous power wielded by the investment banks, oil companies, and other hegemonic forces of our era. But this view is myopic. In the U.S., the railroad tycoons were once feared and hated for their enormous power, wealth, and political influence. A few hundred years ago people felt the same way about the East India Company. In the 12th Century no power was feared more than the Roman Catholic Church — one hundred years later the Mongol Empire took that claim.
Today’s major tyrannical powers (the banking and oil industries), with their tax scams and labor exploitation, are laughably moderate in comparison. Within twenty or thirty years they’ll fall as well, not via armed rebellion but through sensible regulation and taxation structures (or, in the case of oil companies, possibly a giant drop in demand, as energy production becomes more sustainable and decentralized).
What Can We Do?
Progressives (and conservatives who are interested in greater income equality and social stability) can support Occupy Wall Street, and keep the national spotlight on income inequality, higher taxes on the mega-rich, tax breaks for the poor and middle class, jobs programs, banking reforms, and the rest of the economic agenda.
If Republicans continue to ignore these issues, simplistically denouncing the protests as socialist/communist/smelly hippy/homeless, they may get hammered this election season. It’s not that the protests don’t include Marxists and homeless people (they do), it’s that the national debate has changed. People have seen the graphs. The cat is out of the bag. The massive extent of wealth inequality is now in the public consciousness, and it’s not going away.
Your thoughts? All comments from all perspectives are welcome as long as they’re reasonably civil. Will Occupy Wall Street lead to anything? Has public awareness regarding wealth inequality increased, and does it matter? Can we expect anything besides political gridlock from 2012 to 2016?