Love Those Occupiers?
Donald Trump thinks Occupy Wall Street is ‘kind of cool’. Obama likes it; the governor of the Bank of Canada likes it; the Fat Cats who like it are legion. The mainstream media love it. They make a big deal of it despite the fact that the Occupiers amount to a rounding error in the population at large – not exactly the 500,000 that, to Egypt’s glory, filled Tahrir Square. Doesn’t this make anyone the tiniest bit suspicious that something is wrong here? It’s not that you should never support anything people you mistrust or dislike support. It’s that you have to wonder about your tactics if you’ve instantly become everyone’s mascot.
Little wonder. For one thing, to march proudly with the 99% is to align yourself with those whose incomes may be as high as $503,566. It seems a little odd to be drumming shirtless for these people. For another, the bulk of what comes from Occupy Wall Street is the same populist guff that the government and virtually every mainstream shill for the existing order has been working ever since the crisis began, ever since Congressmen got all righteous about auto executives coming to testify in private jets. As for the concrete measures some Occupy types have suggested, a lot of those are what has been proposed by Fat Cats for a couple of years now – rein in rogue speculators, re-erect the firewalls between banking and investing, and so on.
Well, something is indeed wrong. Blaming Wall Street is wrong, blaming the Fat Cats is wrong. Pointing to inequality is also wrong in the sense that it has nothing to do with the financial crisis and its aftermath. None of this rises above a crude populism that cannot be allowed to siphon off any prestige that may attach to left-wing traditions, and certainly not to Marxism.
Whatever Marxism’s faults, one of its virtues was a consistent refusal to blame individual capitalists for anything: hate the game, not the player. This extends to individual enterprises such as Goldman-Sachs. It was not only Marx who said this, it was also the early American socialists like Charles H. Vail, who actually went out and spoke to the American people. Individual capitalists and firms were seen as prisoners of the system. The Fat Cats had no freedom of action, and do-gooders like Josiah Wedgewood, who wanted a coalition of factory-owners to remove the evils of the system, were Quixotic.
I am no Marxist ideologue and certainly no economist, but even I can see that blaming Wall Street simply obfuscates serious problems. Here, awaiting more qualified comment, is a mere suggestion of what those problems might be.
It seems that the world is awash in productive capacity.
A mob of nations – Korea, India, Pakistan, China, Japan, and much of the West – can and do make, say, socket wrench sets, but not everyone can sell them to everyone. That’s why I can get a socket set that used to cost $300 on sale for $100 – this is not like computers becoming a commodity, this is the same product with the same manufacturing process getting overproduced. Excess capacity may not lead directly to deflation, but it seems a constant deflationary pressure, and it has driven manufacturing out of the US.
The result, now often noted, is that ‘we don’t make anything any more’. I don’t understand the exact economic impact of this, but it seems as if Americans just don’t generate enough ‘real’ value, at least in the sense of producing things for which there is an enduring need. But someone has to buy all the stuff out there. Americans, however hard they work, can’t ‘really’ earn the money to underwrite their consumption – not through any fault of their own, but because there isn’t enough ‘really’ valuable stuff for them to produce. So to help keep the world economic system going, Americans were made into hyper-consumers who didn’t ‘really’ earn the cost of their consumption. Nor could they obtain the money to sustain the process entirely from wages or over-employment; that would have made weakly competitive American firms even less competitive. So it became necessary extend the use of credit. Credit, once necessary simply to sustain normal investment and trade, became necessary to sustain consumption.
Because unearned hyper-consumption was a necessity, it became an ideology: shop till you drop. (This is classic Marxist causality.) With it came a pro-credit attitude and outlook. Five years ago, buying a house with cash was for quaint immigrants who didn’t understand a modern financial system. Using credit, leveraging your assets, was smart. And if you cut a few corners here and there, hell, that was smart too.
What was smart for individuals was also regarded as smart for the nation and for individual firms. Financial services, like other services, became regarded as a vital and respectable source of economic strength. The purveyors of these services were unleashed, on purpose, so that they too would cut corners; we would all share the wealth. And the ideology also endorsed the idea that these folks were whiz kids, not doofuses who had latched on to a mathematics of risk they didn’t understand.
Do we now pretend to be surprised that some of these folks were dishonest, and cheated, and over-extended themselves? As if we didn’t know that came with the territory, as if we didn’t put temptation in the path of the abusers. Sure, that is no excuse, but so what? A problem with the system became an opportunity for naughty folks to be naughty, and indeed they had little choice, because that was the path to beating or at least equalling the competition. We set up the game – why blame the player? Or blame him if you like – it isn’t the problem, and it’s certainly not the solution.
The ‘we’ may sound outrageous, but it’s right. For many decades, American voters have very consciously embraced capitalism, very consciously rejected even the idea of modifying capitalism, except in a more free-market direction. Among the voters who have endorsed the current system are many workers and many poor people. Sure, there was manipulation and propaganda; that is a fact of political life. It is also a fact of political life that some electorates can resist manipulation better than others. Big business also exists and owns mass media everywhere in the world that adopted a more restrained form of capitalism. America signed onto the free market as it signed on to anti-communism, with its well-known tendency to religious fervor. Maybe Americans are not to blame for this, maybe they were victims of large historical and economic pressures, but that doesn’t change the facts.
So no, don’t blame Wall Street. And if unregulated capitalism is to blame, admit that the capitalists don’t want the crisis, and many of them favor steps to prevent its recurrence. There may be phenomena and ideologies to blame – for me, the religion of free trade is a prime suspect. But getting all righteous about the system – and the inequalities – the American people have endorsed is certainly no answer, and blaming the Fat Cats is retrograde. That is why the Occupy movement will go nowhere.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche is published by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, “What is Anti-Semitism”, to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. His latest book is The Case Against Israel. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org