Here’s how a noted correspondent for the London Observer recently described one of the world’s great democratic republics: “[The country] has become greedy, obsessed with commercialism at the expense of any other value or norm, xenophobic, belligerent, and hubristic.”
He was talking about modern Great Britain. But sentient Americans reading the unpleasant description surely identify with the harsh diagnosis. We’ve been this way for as long as I’ve been alive (more than 46 years). Manifest Destiny has always been our credo and American Exceptionalism our rationale. But now, as in Great Britain, our historical mother, the Empire – and the myth of universal prosperity — is crumbling. The belligerence turns toward home.
In London there were riots and looting and violence. In New York (and Los Angeles, Oakland, Atlanta, Denver, Las Vegas, and a growing number of cities in every region of the Unites States) there’s an occupation.
What started as “Occupy Wall Street” has morphed and grown into a long overdue nationwide protest. Predictably and depressingly, the thousands of dismayed and discontented Americans whose desperation is acute enough to inspire group action have been portrayed as “aimless” and “disorganized,” as though their concerns lack seriousness because they haven’t been properly packaged and disseminated through handsome press releases and influential lobbyists. Major media don’t know how to tell the story. Politicians don’t know whether to co-opt or reject the movement. Policemen aren’t sure if they should serve, protect, or remove. What’s going on?
This: the stirring of class warfare.
It’s bloodless for now, and one devoutly wishes for it to remain that way. But let’s not kid ourselves. Like an infected wound that must be cleansed and allowed to scab, our civil society is going to get uglier before it gets better. The extreme inequality of wealth (and the respective lifestyles that comes with grotesque inequity) in our global village, from America to China, England to India, has become untenable. It’s dangerous. For all of us. Throughout recorded history, economic injustice is the primary cause of revolutions and civil wars. The oppressed eventually rise up, preferring to die in dignity than to live as slaves. We ignore the protesters at our own peril, whether we see ourselves as a Have, a Have Not, or something in between.
Despite their easily mocked ragtag ingenuousness, the Occupiers – popularly known as “the 99%,” as in “everyone who isn’t part of the elite 1% who control the bulk of our capital” – have a crucial point. The outrageous imbalance between the government bailout of institutions that gamble with other people’s money (banks) and the individuals who they ripped off (the people) needs to be rectified. Call it class warfare if you like – and if you’re a Republican politician you really ought to, because it sounds good to your alienated base. Call it a long overdue corrective. Call it communism if you’re a fan of propaganda. Whatever the moniker, demanding that one of America’s inherent faults needs to be fixed isn’t pathetic, useless, or naïve. It’s patriotic.
Let us agree that an unregulated financial industry free to play with house money was the main cause of the 2008 economic crash. (Do even the most orthodox free-marketeers dispute this?) Their off-the-books shadow-banking, shoddy mortgage underwriting, and massive leveraging of every bet would be the scandal of the century if not for the fact that very few laws were broken. The only thing “criminal” about the plunder is that the banks and their political cohorts helped to rewrite the rules and regulations of the game. Still – and this is the galling part – the financial industry continues to resist any and all efforts to rein them in, to address the devastating flaws in oversight that allowed them to earn billions while wrecking our economy. If a few thousand people sleeping in tents on public land can serve as a constant reminder of fiduciary injustice, they deserve not scorn. They deserve our praise.
The Twitter version of the Occupiers rallying cry would be, “The banks got bailed out while the people got sold out.”
The more complicated version goes like this: “Our system, which purports to be fair, unprejudiced, and egalitarian, is in fact badly gaffed, allowing those with power and money to systematically amass more power and money while those with less make do with less. Corporate earnings are up, wages are down and jobs are scarce. Unless we wish to return to the Medieval model of Lords and their indentured servants, we must address the obvious inequities in our society and ensure that all Americans, not just rich ones, receive education, nutrition, and medical care. We must agree that all Americans, not just rich ones, should live a dignified life.”
Now, that’s a lot to put on a placard. Which is why we’re constantly told that the Occupiers don’t have a consistent message.
I hear them. I get what they’re protesting. They’re right.
After the death of Qadaffi, it was discovered that he and his family had pilfered $200 billion from the Libyan people. We knew he was a thief, but the amount recovered was more than double what experts had estimated. The money bought palaces and planes, mansions and mercenaries. But most of it just sat in foreign bank accounts while nearly a third of the Libyan population, primarily those in the east, lived in poverty, slowly starving. “That horrible pig!” he was called. How terrible, how heartless for one clan to hoard their nation’s wealth while millions struggle to eat! Qaddafi stole $200 billion from the hungry Libyan people, and folks were outraged.
Imagine though, that he got the $200 billion legally, through good investments and influential political connections. Imagine that he broke no laws while amassing the fortune. Would that make us feel better about things? Sure, millions of his fellow Libyans would still be starving. But he played by the rules, and so did they. He won, they lost.
The truth is it’s always a crime against humanity when one small group of people takes far more than the remaining society can bear.
It’s time to Occupy Everything.