Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Occupy Wall Street

Recently I read a piece by Russell Brandt about the Occupy Wall Street movement, you can read it here:   http://www.russellbrand.tv/2011/10/occupy/. I like Rusty, I really do, I think he’s a good egg, but I think he’s got a few things wrong. I’m usually pretty fond of Russ’s writing  but this article seemed to be a lot of flowery prose and not much more, a bit like the movement he was trying to describe. I’ve been watching the Occupy Wall Street protest for quite some time and as an event it really looks like a lot of fun. It’s basically the Woodstock of bitch sessions, complete with muddied camp grounds, college students, celebrities and handmade hemp bracelets on sale for only $5.00. It’s the largest political block party the world has ever seen, with enough potato salad and rhetoric for everyone. It’s a great place for people to get their grievances out in the open air, but unfortunately it doesn’t do much else.

I have quite a few of my own grievances and I’m mad as hell about them! My voice must be heard at Occupy Wall Street! Of course I’ll have to wait in line behind the gay humanist movement and the Mexican Zapatistas, but I’m good with that.  Of course you know that’s nonsense, I could never compete with the Mexican Zapatistas for pure showmanship. What I’m getting at though, in a backhanded sort of way is that I never know what anyone in the movement actually wants. There is no effective issue for my mind to grab on to, besides a cavalcade of problems I already grapple with in the back of my head every day. Yes I know that a large chunk of our population is unemployed and an even larger chunk is underemployed (which might be the bigger problem). Yes I know there’s a huge hunk of plastic the size of Texas sitting in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I also understand that workers in Malaysia get slave wages. I’ve known all of these things for quite some time, what I don’t know is how to solve them and unfortunately camping out in the middle of the city doesn’t get me any closer to answers.

There does seem to be one umbrella issue that dominates the discussion and it’s is a trigger for frustration across all strata of society; the economy. When I ask people why they’re joining the Occupy Wall Street movement they tell me “I’m against the financial system”. I then ask, what does that mean? For once I’m not trying to be a sarcastic pric, I really want to know. I usually get some fuzzy answer like “I’m against all the greed”, and “I hate all those fat cats” or my favourite “Down with corporations”. Ok, It’s a given that we all got screwed by a bunch of greedy investment bankers, and yes we got screwed on a massive global scale. And yes we will continue to suffer from their incompetence well into the future as the European economies drive themselves off a cliff. But here’s the thing, it’s their function to be greedy. Like bacteria eating away at compost, they serve a purpose. You may think it’s a smelly distasteful purpose but it’s a necessary one none the less. They’re paid to make as much money as humanly possible for their clients, in other words they manage capital. You may not like their job, but it serves a function just as the defense lawyer for a drug dealer serves a function.

So where does blame lie? There was indeed a failure with the system, but not with the bankers. The bankers are regulated by you and I. Our government sets the boundaries on what they can and cannot do, and in the mid 2000’s those boundaries where erased without so much as a whisper of opposition. Why? Simple, because money was flowing. Everyone had a job, a new 40” HDTV and life was good. Why mess with it? But there was an Oz behind the curtain and most of us where unwilling to look. When anyone tried to throw back the curtain, and several did, they were quickly beaten down and labelled as obstacles to prosperity. These labels came not only from “fat cats” on Wall Street but also from many whom now occupy Wall Street.  After the world nearly ended (financially speaking), everyone cried from the rooftops about the lack of regulation. Solemn vows where made to reign in the risk takers and restore a fair regulatory regime. So it now seems that the biggest crime is that little or none of the promised controls on the banking system have ever been implemented. The system is now, much as it was in 2008, and we have only ourselves to blame. If you want to effectively change that situation, occupy the steps of the parliament and congressional houses, not the financial district.

The occupiers of Wall Street also seem to have a problem with corporate governance. To that I say, tell me something I don`t know. This is something that has been apparent for over 10 years. Again, we know this; it’s not a topic that has to have a light focussed on it. It`s importance has been obvious to anyone who cares for quite some time. If you really do care, there is an effective lever that the everyday person can use to exert control over a corporation, it’s called buying behaviour. Simply identify what corporations you have a beef with, cut their products out of your life and convince your friends to do the same. In an age of instantaneous social networking a product boycott has never been more effective. Overnight, crippling blows can be sent to large corporations, but relatively few if any “concerned social activists” ever bring out this big stick, and when they do it seldom works. Why? Because most people love their stuff more than their cause. Most don’t even see the conflict of walking to Occupy Wall Street in their Adidas or mobilizing the cause with their iPhone (but not Blackberry because RIM is somehow more evil than Apple). Indeed spending a day at the park is much easier than actually going without the latest app.

Now when I stop to listen to the rambling speeches and posturing of the people in the “movement” I hear a lot about toppling the establishment, and bringing down the economic system. There are grand statements of how capitalism is the root of suffering and that it has to go. Fine, so what do we replace it with exactly? When I ask this question I usually get a silence that’s only broken by crickets chirping in the background. Now capitalism has it’s big issues, we all know them fairly well and have been living with them since almost the dawn of time, but the fact of the matter is that there is no other system that we have devised that will feed four billion people. I can see the fathers of “The Movement” reeling, oh how can he say that when millions are malnourished, and even more are on the brink of starvation. The simple fact is that without trade and capitalism billions would be dead or would have never had even the basic chance at life. I fully understand that the distribution of resources such as food is remarkably unbalanced in favour of the first world, don’t worry that is not lost on me one bit. However that’s where the work part comes in, come up with a better system. Show me.

So it seems to me as I write this, that Occupy Wall Street is nothing more than an exercise in first world vanity. A way to cleanse the guilty conscience by mixing with the proletariat, shouting slogans in the park and really feeling like part of something bigger. The movement can give you a voice to say what you really want to say; I don’t lead a safe boring life. I am part of something bigger that will really change the world. Sorry, unfortunately, wrong on all counts. You’re merely buying the soap that they’re selling. You see changing the world takes real work, it means going without, and sacrificing for your convictions. Don’t get me wrong, if you believe in something and your willing to really do what needs to be done to affect change you have my respect (even if I don’t agree with you). Unfortunately a day or two, or even a week in the park isn’t that something.

If you’re serious about tackling these tremendous issues, do me a favour, come up with solutions. We’re all listening. If you really want to curb the abuse of corporate power, vote with your dollars and encourage your friends to so the same. If you really want financial institutions to act responsibly with the large blocks of capital they wield, then tell your government how to regulate them. If you  really want to tackle the daunting task of fair and equitable distribution of resources, start by redistributing some of your own resources to someone in need. Better yet come up with ideas for a better way of doing things yourself, and mobilize your friends into actioning those ideas. Or you can sit in a park listening to talk of inequity, chat on your iPhone, chant slogans and basically do zero to really change the world. You see the world doesn’t need more politics, more talk, or more recycled rhetoric, it needs more solutions. So why are you sitting in the park?