As a first-birthday gift, Occupy Wall Street was treated to a hefty round of dismissals, roasts and obituaries from the mainstream media, none of whom saw fit to hire journalists to, say, report on it. The New York Times’ Wall Street stenographer, Andrew Ross Sorkin memorably described Sunday’s Hundreds-of-Arrests-Thousand-of-Participants day’s worth of actions as a “fizzle.” The Wall Street Journal declared the tea party the victor in the battle everyone knows it has going with Occupy Wall Street. However, it was Bloomberg View’s editors who concocted the most instructive and provocative thesis: “How Mitt Romney and Occupy Wall Street Are Alike.”
The conceit of the piece is that Mitt Romney’s 53%-47% formulation, as articulated in the recently-leaked speech Romney gave at an expensive fundraiser, is only as mistaken as Occupy Wall Street’s 1%-99% binary. The protesters, according to the article, “unwisely apportioned Americans into mutually hostile camps defined by wealth.” Take that, unwise plebeians!
It was not, of course, Occupy Wall Street that apportioned people into classes; that had already happened by the time the anarchists got to Zuccotti Park a year ago. Neither did Occupy Wall Street invent the idea that these classes share an antagonistic relationship. Occupy Wall Street, in fact, hasn’t created any economic divisions whatsoever; it has only pointed out the ones endemic to capitalism.
But if there’s a war going on, Bloomberg asks, where’s the blood and guts? “In the past year,” the editors write, in a moment of witty splendor, “many members of the ‘1 percent’ were no doubt surprised to learn from Occupy Wall Street that they are at war.”
I, for one, am inclined to buy it. It may well be that the wealthiest 1% of people have been surprised to learn of our conflict, much as Marie Antoinette was doubtless surprised when the sans-culottes showed themselves reluctant to eat her bread. In truth, if the Romney video makes one thing perfectly clear, it’s that, far from considering us foes, the ownership class devotes virtually no thought at all to those of us who don’t own everything.
Everyone’s immediate reaction to Romney’s obliviousness of the working class is to condemn it, but really denseness regarding class conflict is to be expected from the powerful. The more important issue, the truly condemnable thing, the problem actually worth trying to solve, is how little thought the rest of us give.
Almost no one possesses any class consciousness, much less a class analysis, and without those, no revolutionary economic transformation is possible. Among the most valuable pursuits to which “the Occupy movement” can devote itself in its second year is fostering a widespread recognition that the ownership class’s right to the money it has accumulated is predicated on little more than theft, predation and freeloading. The revolution we should be working for is a mass social consensus to seize that “property” and transfer it into the commons.
Simply put, they didn’t earn that money. Mitt Romney’s story vividly showcases the economic uselessness of the ownership class, beyond the utility of its own indefinite wealth accumulation. Bain Capital under his stewardship would take out hundreds of millions of dollars in loans, buy corporations, strip them of their assets, stick them with the debt, and leave them to die. That is not manufacturing a good nor delivering a service; it is simply highfalutin, mass theft. The money Mitt Romney stashes in Swiss bank accounts is not rightfully his.
Or take the bankers who precipitated the mortgage credit bubble. Their billion-dollar bonuses came from profits generated by bilking home owners, pension funds and taxpayers. The derivatives market high rollers did nothing to earn that money; they simply picked it out of millions of people’s pockets. It doesn’t belong to them.
When it isn’t maliciously predatory, as when Goldman Sachs bet on the failure of its own toxic assets, profit-acquisition is at best parasitic. Most corporate boards of directors are made up, as economist Richard Wolff is fond of reminding us, of fifteen to twenty people who are the primary beneficiaries of the profits the companies turn. But those people do not contribute their money to the ongoing functions of the companies they own, nor do they work at those companies. They just wait, poolside at the club with some insipid cocktail in hand, for the check to come via covered platter delivered by a butler, like a family of leeches salivating over fresh blood. That is not their money. They don’t have any right to it.
That wealth should be forfeit and distributed into the commons. As the French Revolution abolished feudal rights and seized the land “owned” by the clerisy, it is to us to abolish capitalistic “rights” and return the world’s wealth to those who created it, those whom the rich have robbed of it: the working class.
Generating consensus around proposals such as these is not easy. As things stand, the consensus at the core of our over-praised System of Representative Democracy never calls capitalistic ownership rights into question.
President Obama may once have claimed that the American economy would benefit by way of some mild wealth “redistribution,” which the floundering Romney campaign desperately hollered about in the wake of the embarrassing “47%” video’s release, but the critical takeaway from the last four years is that the President is either unwilling or unable – or both – to facilitate that redistribution. In any case, it is actually our job, not his.
Topics that will generate no discussion in campaign ads or presidential debates over the next two months include private prisons, private mercenary armies, for-profit colleges, the housing market, commodities speculation, factory farming, GMOs, oil spills, and a whole host of other means by which the ownership class can steal from us. Whatever Bloomberg View say of it, Occupy Wall Street is the only even moderately influential social force attempting even to address these problems, much less propose solutions.
It may not look from the editors’ offices at Bloomberg like anything is needed beyond “a little respect and decency,” but those on the losing side of the class war know that smiles and charity won’t suffice to help us out of this bind. The editors’ insistence to the contrary calls to mind their own mention of “ideological constructs borne of ignorance, mythology and the tribal arrogance that results from spending way too much time with people like yourself.” (As though they while away the hours with teenagers who languish in prison for smoking a joint or denizens of post-foreclosure tent cities.)
In its second year, if we’re lucky, Occupy Wall Street’s theory and critique will come to match its energy, and our mass social consensus to let rich people continue to take our stuff – and hang on to the stuff they’ve already taken – will erode.