J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

The Main Effect of Occupy Wall Street Has Already Happened

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.

Until now.

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.

Long-Term Consequences

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.

The future of the "sanctity of marriage" movement -- kookiness and marginalization.

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?

Ha!

Zooming Out

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).

Sid Meier's Railroads -- maybe in the future we can play games as Goldman Sachs or Chevron executives.

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?

Previous

Cultural Clawbacks — How We Regain Quality of Life After Technological "Improvements"

Next

What Is "Self-Branding" Anyway?

10 Comments

  1. Thanks. One of Michel Bauwen’s ideas about change is that those in power before the change will not be able to do it and must be replaced with leaders grounded in the new order. Interesting point.

  2. I enjoyed meeting Michel, and I’ll be thinking and writing about peer-to-peer production and distribution in the coming weeks. For those not familiar with Michel Bauwens, his wikipedia page is a good place to start:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Bauwens

  3. Hello J.D.,

    Another insightful post. Reading this felt more productive than watching 1 year’s worth of mainstream news cycles.

    Thank you and keep up the good work.

  4. An illuminating first-person account of the Occupy Oakland events on Wednesday:

    http://viewpointmag.com/2011/11/03/notes-on-oakland-2011/

  5. A BLOG OF J.C. MOYER (A long overdue response and tribute to the outstanding blogs of J.D. Moyer)
    I recently read J.D. Moyer’s blog about Occupy Wall Street. Its comments on power and power elites who have created the 1% are sound. He presents Chris Hedges hopefulness about the Occupy movement and his pessimism about US leadership. J.D. leans away from this pessimism and affirms the tendencies toward a better quality of life, more fairness and less violence for Americans. J.D. answers the question, “What can we do?” with “…(we) 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.” I assume that this is what is proposed especially for the X,Y,Z generations of Americans.
    In response I would like to look at Occupy Wall Street from a more global perspective. I see this movement as an important step in disclosing the totality of the U.S. Empire and its role in supporting global capitalism for the 1% in many countries. The US power elites carry out this agenda through their control of military, corporate, banking, intelligence and criminal networks. It is noted that none of these entities pay much in the way of taxes, but receive massive benefits paid for by US taxpayers. Before the bubble burst in 2008 these networks quietly went about the vertical integration of their finance capital. Then the bubble burst. The largest financial houses in the world had destroyed the US credit, housing and jobs markets and their own corporations. They got bailed out. Then, we saw the emergence of public protest in many places in the US and around the world with a focus on Wall Street. This focus is correct and related directly to the massive destruction of human lives created by Wall Street. This people can see.
    However, what is Wall Street supporting that we do not see so clearly? Global analysts in several countries suggest that Wall Street is after much more than the privatization of the US economy. They see what is happening to the gross world product (gwp). Currently is gwp is about 65 trillion dollars a year. Some 20% of that product is in the hands of the 1%. This 18 trillion is only accessible to the few. It is not taxed by any country. The funds are kept in offshore banks licensed to the major world banks. So as world population grows available credit for the world population decreases in ever larger increments. This system is used by banking centers in the US, Europe, the Middle East and in Asia which has produced a global community of the 1%, by the 1% for the 1%.
    In recent months governments in several countries were overthrown. In Tunisia and Egypt unemployment, cell phones, Face Book, Twitter and public outrage at the behavior of security forces all came together to create an effective non-violent demand for new leadership, a new economy and representative government. Key to the success of these revolts was mass participation on the streets, communication that could not be blocked by the governments and asymmetrical planning that could not be stopped by the security forces. Great courage was also seen.
    Occupy Wall Street has friends and parallel movements in many other countries who also suffer from the current global banking system. Knowledge based communication about what these other movements have learned could be most helpful. Non-violent insurgency is on the rise.

  6. Ted

    I have a couple of theories:
    1) Social/economic Darwinism is at work and the most financially fit 1% are at the top of the food chain at the expense of the 99% less fit individuals. This will continue until the 99% quits seeing themselves as individuals and realizes that collectively, as a leviathon, they are far more powerful. The upheaval will be exactly as voilent and bloody as necessary to unseat those entrenched 1% who are also playing for keeps, but cannot win in the face of sheer numbers. This has happened many times before. The problem is that there cannot be stasis of equality because those same Alpha types who are screwing us now are intolerant of equality and very proactive at biasing events in their favor. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    2) We are part of a post-graduate equivalent alien lab experiment addressing the habit of aribtrairly ascribing value to items that have no intrinsic value (like shells, paper, and Justin Beiber’s hair) and then using those items for inter-individual and institutional transactions. Our last 10,000 years has taken place over just under 2 weeks alien time. The experiment is not going well and the lessons of this cautionary tale may go unappreciated because the student running our experiment is totally infatuated with his undergad assistant who has tits the size of red giant stars. In fact, they are red giant stars.

  7. Ted

    Something else regarding distraction or misdirection: on the whole, we are an extremely distractable. Sure politicians are very adept a pulling the old “look at the birdie” trick, but we really need to own up to that fact that until we quit fawning over and financing people like the Kardashians, the Biggest Losers, the dancing stars, celebrity couples, troubled professional athletes, etc, we are never going to have the time, morey, or inclination to change anything. With bodies fitzting out on processed grains and brains addled by the digital equivalent of high frustose corn syrup, we are an easy mark.

  8. Silas

    If I may, I would like to leave a bit of a different response to the commenters-

    @ J.C. Moyer: In my opinion, government involvement in economics is a facet of this situation that is overlooked. The government should be held accountable to prevent fraud, not make laws for whomever has the most money. The fact that there are companies spending millions of dollars on lobbyists is telltale. Because the government is allowed to make laws that influence the way that corporations act, and politicians are dependent on fundraising for re-election, lobbyists are able to influence policy-makers to shape the laws to their favor and manipulate competition in the market. Why do you think Wal-Mart is so huge? They are legally allowed to bargain for tax exemptions and other goodies from local governments. The system is set up from the top for corruption.
    @Ted: There can’t be freedom with equality. Equality must be enforced. What that means is that everyone is required to come down to the level of whomever is the least able. What you have in the end is a nation of people who are equally poor, with no incentive to do well for themselves. Why should I innovate if what I am producing will just be taken from me because it could give me a dollar more than my neighbor if I am successful? The fact of the matter is that if I make a good product, and good money, and I am motivated to produce, I can employ someone else who is skilled and needs work.

  9. Ted

    Silas: People respond to incentives. I completely agree with you. I am also a fan of a meritocracy and a free market. What I don’t like is the abuse that is going on. The 1% super rich, by and large, are where they are not because they are the hardest working mortgage lenders or hedge fund managers or because the produced the best widget (Steve Jobs excepted, RIP). They are where they are because they have enough money to influence policy makers to write laws that bias circumstances in their favor at the expense of nearly everybody else. It is a form of soft (sometimes hard) corruption and that is what I think people are fed up with.

    The trick will be allowing the free market to be free enough to incentivize innovation and hard work, but establishing some checks and balances in the system to prevent corruption while at the same time limiting government involvement. Where the hell is Reagan when you need him?

Join the discussion! Please be excellent to each other. Sometimes comments are moderated.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén