Surely Occupy Wall Street isn’t the only thing we could be talking about this week. For example, I’m intrigued by Kazakhstan’s tyrannical new anti-religion statutes, which, while aimed at curbing Islamist violence, threaten to stifle religious freedom in that country. On the other hand, a little part of me gets a little thrill whenever any secular state clamps down on unfettered exercise of religion. Benighted religious countries like America might take a lesson. In New York City, for example, the famous difficulty finding street parking comes from all those spaces in front of churches where you can’t park your car. What is up with that?
Fortunately for Occupy Wall Street, it’s not a religion and it’s not in Kazakhstan. The closest thing to a written manifesto from the movement appears to be its “Declaration of the Occupation,” which lays out a panoply of grievances against Corporate America. While not entirely coherent, the screed paints a picture of a whole universe of corporate villainy, specifying about 20 accusations, everything from “They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization” to “They have sold our privacy as a commodity.”
The list focuses on corporations rather than the political system. Yet it’s really the linkage of the two that has elicited the anger behind the movement. What may be the key accusation, or at least the one that might be the most universally agreeable on the Left, is this one: “They have donated large sums of money to politicians supposed to be regulating them.”
Movement spokesman Justin Wedes told a radio audience the other day that Occupy Wall Street shows that people have had “enough of corporate governance, enough of the political influence of the moneyed interests on Wall Street, in Washington, in our local and state governments…It’s destroying our economy, and people have had enough.”
Asked about what the remedies might be, Wedes didn’t have a direct answer, but he knew who the enemy was. Sort of. “Our finger has always been squarely pointed at Wall Street,” he said. “Our target is that one percent of people who are destroying the economy for the other 99%, and whether those people reside in Washington DC or on Wall Street or in other financial centers or wherever it may be, the target is plain and clear.” Asked if the movement was, therefore, anti-capitalist, he skirted the question: “If we are truly the 99%, then that represents a very very large spectrum of beliefs, and so I don’t want to pigeonhole it into one simple ideology.” Perhaps an improved iteration of capitalism is the goal. “We’ve looked at our financial system and watched it erode over the past few years, and much of that has to do with an unsustainable culture, a culture of greed, a casino-like culture of profit before people.”
“Profit before people.” There’s the rub. In ideological free-market capitalism, nothing comes before profit. The assumption is that profit, being good for the company, is thus also good for its employees and the marketplace and thus by extension the population—in short, “the people.” The question then comes up: If profits are significantly curtailed by legal restrictions and regulations, do you really have a free market?
Well, we’ve never actually had one. From the very beginning of the Republic, government intervention has been built into the system. The fragility of the balance between “greed is good” and “fair is fair” underlies today’s conflict, not to mention many of the political struggles that we witness decade after decade. The Tea Party movement wants less government, while traditional liberals insist government is not the problem. Occupy Wall Street wants less greed, while traditional conservatives want the “free market” to operate with real freedom. Can Occupy Wall Street rise above its early manifesto, which is both too specific and too vague, and capture the zeitgeist by channeling popular anger against the “fat cats” responsible for the hard times afflicting the “99%”? Might as well ask: Can an African-American former pizza chain chief become our nation’s next Chief Executive? Stay tuned.