Saturday, 22 October 2011
What is Fair and Whose is Whose Final Instalment - Occupy Yo'self
"If you not rich, if you don't have a job, don't blame the big banks, don't blame Wall Street, blame yo self!"
-U.S. Republican Presidential Candidate and Former CEO of Godfather's Pizza Herman Cain
Can you bring some free pizza down to the protest?
Call Cain's remarks folksy, simplistic or misguided if you want. But they sure are funny. At least you know where he stands on the issue that has dominated the airwaves in the month of October. The Occupy Wall Street protestors don't claim to all be there for the same reasons or have a unified agenda. Most mainstream Newspaper columnists present a token acknowledgement of forces at work in the world (stagnating and declining real wages, soaring executive pay, high unemployment despite record corporate profits), then dismiss the protests as disorganized, unrepresentative of society, and irrelevant (yet, they chose them as a subject for their columns). The movement and its chances for having any long term impact are totally up in the air; what's astounding is the amount of coverage it has received despite these complaints about its flaws. What is so intriguing about this anger if nobody other than Mr. Cain can agree on what it has coalesced around?
There have been no shortage of musings from prominent individuals weighing in on that question. Two influential global, ex-Goldman Sachs big bankers, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney and soon to be European Central Bank Governor Mario Draghi, surprised everybody by calling them "constructive" and saying that the anger was "understand(able)", respectively. Less surprising was the disapproval and sniping by middle-aged, MSM columnists like Wente at the Globe and Mail and Brooks at the NY Times, whose main argument was that the North American middle class was busy re-aligning and re-building itself , and going about its business in a grown-up, quiet, dignified way. While the issues affecting this amorphous demographic are real, they said, it had no time for a group of fringe extremists who had received far too much attention already. Getting behind their cool dismissive stance is tempting, especially when individual stories coming out of the occupy crowd in these columns reveal educated, out of work 20-somethings who've never experienced real hardship, and comments are being made below their article include somebody "seeing 24 people at Occupy Calgary and 24 Help Wanted signs the same day". Is the occupy movement as simple as much ado about nothing?
The mainstream consensus gravitates toward yes. The most academic and statistic-based spelling out of the yes was perhaps in the other day's Globe, in which a Wilfrid Laurier economics prof argues that the now-infamous "99%" is more like "30%", and in the interest of transparency the occupiers should admit this. The argument of her and everyone else before her is that the occupiers are nothing more than a hodgepodge of tenured Marxists, lazy college-educated kids who expect 80k out the graduation gate, ex-manufacturing nouveau-poor, and typical union hacks. Economists like to point to the good news, like that extreme global poverty has been halved and here in Canada the bottom 20% standards of living have actually gone up. There have been other reactions as well. Chantal Hébert parsed in the Star that if the 18-35 demographic is so up in arms maybe more of them should cast ballots. Funniest of all perhaps was Jim Flaherty's befuddled performance on CTV in which he claimed something like "I just don't understand what this is all about" The biggest media whore politician in Canadian history who is in the papers every day pretending to be a finance and economic sage is suddenly Mr. "Naive .
That the mainstream media, political, and business establishments has refused to take the movement seriously should surprise no one: after all, it wields no real power. It also does not speak their language of PR, spokespeople, and bullet points. I think things have slightly progressed in that the protestors have generated some curious observation and sympathy from certain quarters of the establisment. I have not been out to a protest myself, not because I disagree with their message or am silly enough to believe that we live in a non-stacked deck meritocracy, but because I know that almost everyone instinctively knows what the demonstrators are saying: "Society's unfair!" "Capitalism is a ponzi scheme!". Sure, there is much that can be done collectively to take down powerful interests; but I think these protests are more symbolic than concrete. They may "change the conversation", as the Rev Al Sharpton said this week on Jon Stewart, but they in and of themselves do not threaten the status quo.
But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be concerned about social justice, which is why the person we should focus on, the person who has disappointed me most in all this, is President Obama, who dismissed the protests as "Lacking a clear agenda". I've harped on the man here a fair bit, and let me tell you that now more than ever it pains me to do so, as I recently read his book Dreams From My Father. This guy was raised by stoutly lower-middle class people and knows all about the pains of trying to organize poor people to get together and demand better lives in the face of their own communities' profound ignorance and indifference. Whether the explanation for the change of heart is the short one (power corrupts), or the long one (ageing is making him losing his idealism and crusade), I hesitate to say that he's not the same person anymore. The book is so witty, so earnest, and has such a nuanced and well-meaning understanding of humanity's problems that I can't bring myself to believe he doesn't see through the hypocrisy and cowardice present in so many of his administration's policies.
The problem perhaps is he is a prisoner in his post, or maybe being constantly present in the high arenas of the elite causes their ideas to leech into even the smartest people's brains through osmosis. Yes, the protests attracted a rag-tag bundle of signs, and no, the movement doesn't have a "platform" or "spokespeople" , but to discredit and run to wall street's defence shows unbelievable condescension on the president's part. The guy I read in that book would have been talking about the tent-car city in California where a shower truck passes by once a week, or the financial inability of Topeka, Kansas to legally enforce action against domestic violence. And the federal government, adding 250$ billion of new debt every couple of months, is only going to be in less and less of a position to address the panoply of ills 2011 America is stricken with.
Yet when you're surrounded by people like Larry Summers, spouting chest-thumping drivel like "Predictions of America's decline are as old as the republic. But they perform a crucial function in driving the kind of renewal that is required of each generation of Americans. I submit to you that as long as we're worried about the future, the future will be better. We have our challenges. But we also have the most flexible, dynamic, entrepreneurial society the world has ever seen.", I can understand how you can become cold and indifferent, ensconced in your White House bubble. After all, this guy was your chief economic adviser. Let's look at his experience on his resume , all in his native country of America, where millions of resumes get tossed in the garbage every single day. He went from being an adviser to Clinton, to dean of Harvard (whose financial running into the ground he presided over - see VF article), back to the Obama white house, and now onto the boards of Facebook and several silicon valley companies who are making shitloads of money in one of the richest areas in America. Yeah, Larry, with the uninterrupted stay you've had in the black escalades that shuffle the elite to and fro between the various bubbles they inhabit, I could see how you think you live in the greatest flippin' place ever. Unfortunately its not the case, and even the ipad (made in China) can't save you. Silicon valley firms are too busy creating mini-gods out of each of their employees to bother with a bunch of people they'd no doubt scornfully dismiss as dirty hippies, the same ones you pleasantly dismissed as "challenges".
I have been deeply concerned for a long time about the rigged system that caused the resentment which exploded in 951 protests around the world on Oct 16. But these people will all go home, shower, eat, go back to work, inevitably go out and buy groceries again at some point. There is no point in manifesting your dislike of the elite in the form of non-violent, polite demonstration. They will emerge from their enclaves, smile, make empty promises, and then do the timeless act immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in the Great Gatsby, page 9 - "They were careless people...--they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money...their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."
This is what Barack did when he invoked the spirit of Martin Luther King and said not to demonize Wall Street employees. - retreated into a cheap, moralizing civil rights discourse and alluded to the modernized circumstances that allowed him to become president instead of addressing the issues at hand. There is no reasoning with people at the top. If you want to occupy something occupy your own life; if you do it the right way you will engage in collective action much more powerful than any demonstration (which just increases taxpayer burden in the form of overtime police pay). I happen to have some ideas about occupying your own life which may be more effective than freezing your ass out on Wall Street all winter, if you have a minute to listen to me.
If you live where you depend on a car, move. Sell the car, break the lease, and quit complaining about auto bailouts and big oil. It's called opting out. Stay out of shopping malls, strip malls, and department stores: Walmart, Kmart, Dollarama, and the whole lot of them. Plastic crap from China is filling your house with junk, its filling out landfills with crap, and it saps untold productivity and resources from our economy. Make do with the electronics you have instead of buying into industry's planned obsolescence every few months - every TV, every computer, every iphone and ipad needs a shit-ton of rare earth minerals which are disappearing off the earth. Don't use credit or credit cards unless you pay all your balances (and even then, its questionable because you penalize small independent merchants) every month, if you have debt or lines of credit, pay it down and stop. Take as much of your money out of the stock market as you can afford to and move into cash and gold as much as you can. Finally, if you can make, grow, sew, fix or cook something for yourself instead of paying someone else, do it. Don't throw things out until they're absolute toast. If we can occupy our lives by reclaiming these ancient values that have been scuttled away in the 20th and 21st centuries due to big capital and big cartels manipulating our minds into thinking it was necessary to ditch them in the name of "progress", we won't need to protest in the street. I have a feeling a lot of the protesters, besides the young, easy target “hippies”, were self-identified "average folks" who just "can't get ahead" and "don't see how the middle class can take it any more". Stop commuting, stop spending money you don't have, and stop thinking you're entitled to be in the "middle class" just because you were raised with the mindset of one that doesn't exist anymore. You've only got one life to live and one self to live it with - occupy yourself!