Some conservative punditry has claimed to be flummoxed by the "vague" goals of the "Occupy" protests happening across the country. I will grant that there is some truth to this complaint. In their early days, "patchwork" protests often lack a clear and unified voice. Still, no one with a basic understanding of history or an ounce of empathy should be surprised or confused by the outrage of "The Other 99%."
Perhaps an example will make things clearer. For several summers I have taught a course on "Consumerism in Society" to gifted and talented teenagers. To help my students think about the way the market works, and especially how it affects real people, I have them play Monopoly. But I modify the rules to make the game more realistic. Normally all players start with the same amount of money, but in my version a couple of players get ten times more than most, while others have next to nothing.
I do it this way because in many ways life is "rigged." A lot of the circumstances that shape our future are basically accidents. We Americans with our pioneer spirits like the idea of folks pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, but this assumes they have boots. Whether we are raised by absent, alcoholic parents or given every advantage and opportunity is basically a roll of the dice. (As a theologian, I know I should say something about divine Providence, but I have a hard time thinking that kids raised by meth dealers are somehow all "part of God's plan.") Chances are most Americans will be born middle class, which means that if we stay out of trouble, work hard, and go to college, we can look forward to graduating with $24,000 worth of student loan debt and no job prospects.
People are not protesting because the economy is bad. Most middle class Americans can weather a bad economy, even one as bad as this. What is sending people to the streets is an ever-growing awareness that the system is dysfunctional. America is not ruled "by the people" but a cabal of plutocrats. Republican representatives have proven themselves crazy enough to hold America hostage to the wealthy, while the leaders who promised to fundamentally "change" the system back in 2008 have proven they have no spines.
"The Other 99%" are backed into a corner, and that is a dangerous place to be. I am not saying the protesters will turn violent. Though the first law of group dynamics states that whenever a large crowd gathers, somebody will do something stupid, most of the "occupiers" have been peaceful. My point is actually that this pervasive feeling of powerlessness is the sign of an increasingly unstable, failing state. At least that is what the history suggests.
Most of us are familiar with the cycles of "boom" and "bust," but the economic sociologist, Karl Polanyi, noticed another kind of "double movement" at work in market-driven societies like ours. Libertarians clamor to "let the market do its job." They say that when we commit our government regulations, food stamps, and social security checks to the flames, a glorious capitalist utopia will rise up from the ashes. So the state begins to loosen the leash on business and industry. That is when the second movement occurs. The advantage to libertarian arguments is that the market they want has never actually existed because "We the people" just will not allow it to come into being. We fight back! We take to the streets and in "vague" slogans demand to be protected from the market! To see why, I need to say a bit more about Monopoly.™
My "middle class" and "poor" students are a little indignant when they learn that some players start out with an advantage, but many believe they can win if they just play the game "better" than everybody else. They are wrong. The "poorest" players get eliminated fairly quickly. The "middle class" players hang on a bit longer, but soon almost everyone is discouraged. By the time I end the game, the rich have gotten richer (sometimes a lot richer) and almost everyone else is worse off or "out."
I usually play this game before I have my class read Marx because it is easy to dismiss economic "bad guys," but I want my students to begin thinking about what it must be like to work hard, make good decisions, and still lose. It is an exercise in empathy.
It seems to work. When we talk about the "rigged" game, most students complain that I was not being "fair." Many say they just "gave up" when they figured out they could not win no matter how hard they tried. That is when the light bulbs begin to go on. "What happens if you give up in real life?" I ask them. "What happens if you are 'eliminated?'" Slowly the significance of the game begins to dawn on them.
They answer back with, "We die."
Libertarians usually leave that part out of their brochures. John Stewart recently asked Judge Andrew Napolitano the same question I ask my students, and he was extremely reluctant to answer. It is not hard to see why! According to his view, if you make bad decisions, or even if you just get a bad roll of the dice, the market's job is to kill you!
Some might object that I am denying "free will." I seem to be saying that people who ruin their lives by joining gangs or doing drugs are not responsible for their actions. Actually, I believe they are as responsible as the rich kid who gets busted for smoking weed in the high school parking lot. The difference is that one's parents can afford a good lawyer, while the other gets an over-worked public defender. One is insulated from his mistakes, while the other goes to jail for a very long time ("Do not pass 'Go!' Do not collect $200!"). As my students would say, that isn't fair.
Some will probably dismiss me as a "socialist" for saying this, but a democracy cannot survive without fairness. That is why we instituted graduated income taxes and safety nets in the first place. The point is not to give "handouts" but create opportunities through affordable medical care, nutrition programs, educational interventions, and grants and scholarships. Even public transportation creates opportunities by increasing one's areas of possible employment. The point is never to make everyone socio-economic equals, but to give everyone an equal chance to live a meaningful and productive life.
Such programs are increasingly being slashed (often with great enthusiasm), and many of us feel powerless to do anything about it. That is why people are taking to the streets. It is part of the "double movement" of history. Market liberals sow the seeds of their own undoing by gleefully backing ordinary folks up against a wall until they have no choice but to start pushing back.
Historically, when large populations feel suffocated by a "rigged" system, one of two things can happen. Sometimes the state becomes a little more "socialist," which is another way of saying that ordinary people have a greater say in how they want the economy to affect them.
Other times the rich double-down. Police get more violent. Unrest gets more widespread and intense. Sometimes governments fail, and then anything can happen, but it is usually bad.
I do not want to sound like a Jeremiah. Historical analogies can be tricky. There are always exceptions. Still, either scenario suggests it is in the self-interest of those who think (against the evidence) that our "democracy" has hamstrung the market, or that flat taxes would be "awesome," to give a little ground on their ideological commitments.
Libertarian mythology about smaller government and a free market is completely baseless. Only an extremely powerful, extremely intrusive state can subject people to the whims of the market. Effective regulations and a social safety net are not the goals of the protesters but the signs of a functioning democracy.
Democracy is all the protesters want - the power of the people to protect themselves from the self-interest of those with the resources to circumvent the obligations of our social contract. Libertarians would have us believe the "invisible hand" of the market is indifferent, and therefore fair. (While others assume it is the hand of God, but clearly they have never read Adam Smith or the Bible.) In fact the "invisible hand" is attached to the "invisible arm" of an entrenched plutocracy that will strangle anyone who suggests it give its power back to the people.
We can come back from this. The "Occupy" movement does have some specific policy goals, which involve restricting corporate influence in congress and giving the other 99% of us a voice in government again. People are shouting into megaphones because that voice is lost. History shows us what can happen when people like us get pushed into the corner we are in now. Our democracy has been taken from us, and we want it back. It is broken, and we need to fix it.
Either that, or we die.