The Autumn of Our Discontent

OWS crowd

The protests of the growing number demonstrating their anger at the “system” will not disappear even if the protesters tire and dissipate. The New York Times (10/14/11) carried an article on the front page of the business section and prominently on their web site telling how the barons of Wall Street are largely dissing the protestors and dismissing the whole thing. They call the OWS people “unsophisticated” and “gullible.” But they are afraid to say this publicly for fear of being make targets. By remaining anonymous they also cut off any opportunity for a conversation in which they might be able to listen to the real underlying concerns of the demonstrators and the unseen large numbers who are supporting them.

Wall Street is just a symbol and a “good enemy” as one of my friends in Greenpeace labelled Shell during the Brent Spar flap in the UK some years ago. It may be that the organizers of the protests are quite sophisticated and are well aware that the source of their anger is buried deeper in the entire political economy of today. There is little better tactically than a deaf target that makes the protestors case stronger and more appealing by attempting to ignore and belittle it. John Paulson of the bail-out tried to talk “sense” by pointing out that the 1 percent in New York pay 40 per cent of state and local taxes. He only reinforces the point; if the wealth were distributed more equitably, the same taxes would also be paid by a broader chunk of the people.

The bankers and others who dismiss the protests make a great and critical error by failing to accept that the roots of the discontent underpinning these growing events are deeply embedded in the political economy and that the facts cited as evidence of the failures of that system are valid. No matter what single cause is chosen to be the target, it would be seen as “wrong” because the issues arise out of a systemic failure with many parts going awry. My colleague at Marlboro, Ralph Meima, created an open-sourced Charter on the Internet as a place where the voices heard in the protests and those of other sharing the concerns could be captured and elaborated in print. The response has been massive and is growing. I have cited below a few of the arguments on this site to illustrate that it is not just the banks that are creating the massive breakdowns out there.

  • The 1% takes our houses without holding the original mortgages, through illegal foreclosure processes.

  • The 1% perpetuates inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one's skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

  • The 1% poisons the food supply through negligence, and undermines the farming system through monopolization.

  • The 1% strips employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.

  • The 1% outsources labor and uses it as leverage to cut workers’ health care and pay.

  • The 1% influences the courts to let corporations achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.

  • The 1% determines economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.

  • The 1% blocks generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives in order to protect profitable investments in pharmaceuticals.

  • The 1% keeps people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.

  • The 1% blocks alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.

I could add quite a few of my own and I am sure others could do this as well. These assertions bear on the political system, the courts, corporate America in general besides the financial sector, and so on. One constant threads through all, echoing Lord Acton’s famous statement, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” We are close to the second part of his warning. The present inequities are so out of balance and fairness that corruption has become an apt descriptor. The powerful individuals may not be corrupt in the sense of Bernie Madoff or Boss Tweed, but the combined consequences of ego, greed, and privilege have corrupted and broken the system.

Since seeking singular causes and simple solutions is so engrained in our culture (even though it is inappropriate in system failures), I will offer what might be closer to a single “cause.” I am teaching a course on the “new economics of sustainability” at the Marlboro College Graduate School MBA in Managing for Sustainability. The first part has been devoting to reading critical of standard economics with a focus of humanistic economics. Schumacher, subtitled his famous book, Small Is Beautiful, Economics as if People Mattered. Schumacher started a conversation about the heartlessness and inhumane nature of neo-classical economics that much later involved the humanistic ideas of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum, and others. Theodore Roszak defined humanistic economics as “ [A] nobler economics that is not afraid to discuss spirit and conscience, moral purpose and the meaning of life, an economics that aims to educate and elevate people, not merely to measure their low-grade behavior.”

Sen and Nussbaum focus on the essential purpose of an economy and the political system in which it is embedded as providing the capabilities to function fully as a human being and live a good and full life. The opportunity for fulfilling employment is central in both Schumacher and Sen. Schumacher draws from the Buddhist theme of “Right Livelihood,” where Sen draws on the ideas of Gandhi. The recession has exacerbated the failure of the system to satisfy this basic need, but even without the recent failures, this critical function has been largely absent or badly sputtering. All include some form of security, dignity, or authenticity. The singular focus of the present economic system to attend to human needs only through some transformation into a monetary equivalent leaves these qualities of life out and diminishes the well-being of all, even those in the 1 percent.

I find it ironic that the Tea Party and those crying out against the marchers draw their ideology on the need for autonomy and choice without interference from others, either individuals or the government. The government serves as the enforcer of private property that enables them to keep what they claim as theirs. The marchers are saying that they have little opportunity to enjoy either the material life of the ultra-wealth or other capabilities that access by means of great wealth provides. Present barriers to the 1 percent’s access are largely created and enforced by the system of institutions and rules that have enabled the wealthy to get where they are. Would they really want government and the rules that have given them power to go away? Selectively of course, but not as a matter of principle.

My conversations with Ralph and others about where this outpouring will lead are mixed in terms of direction and success. In theory, our relative freedoms compared to those in the countries of the Middle East that have had similar protests with successful systemic or regime change should argue for the possibility of changes here. I am doubtful, but hopeful, that we will see anything like such major shifts in the system. The very set of laws, which govern the society and preserve what freedoms we have, protect the status quo from anarchistic pressures and displacement. The institutions we count on for correcting the failures have become part of the problem, not the solution. I do not believe that either of our two parties can address these protestors with either substantive or meaningful offers to act in solidarity with them. Maybe a viable new political party with leaders credible to the electorate can be created quickly through use of the new social media. I cannot remember a situation in my 60 or so years as a voter with a confluence of aggravation, anger and the means for political mobilization so strong. To the new ramparts: Twitter, Facebook, . . .

(Apologies to Shakespeare for the title; photo credit: AP/Salon)

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1 Comments

Edmond Byrne said:

An report just published from the US Congressional Budget Office offers some figures on rising inequality in the US between 1979 to 2007, with proportionately stellar rises for the top 1% of earners.
Interestingly this trend was only temporarily reversed during the (low/neg growth) recession periods of 1990-1 and 2001 the report says.
More interestingly, the summary blog states:
"The precise reasons for the rapid growth in income at the top are not well understood, though researchers have offered several potential rationales, including technical innovations that have changed the labor market for superstars (such as actors, athletes, and musicians), changes in the governance and structure of executive compensation, increases in firms’ size and complexity, and the increasing scale of financial-sector activities."

See: http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/124xx/doc12485/10-25-HouseholdIncome.pdf
Summary blog: http://cboblog.cbo.gov/?p=2909