Occupy Wall Street: Finding a voice, a message and an audience

** This is a guest post by Bernie Lee **

Trying to write a blog post about Occupy Wall Street that’s fair a balanced has become an endeavor that has led me around in circles. It’s unlike other protest movements such the anti-war hippie movement or the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. In those there were clear leaders and a clear message and the voice was of an identifiable demographic of the American public.

Two historic movements have the same complications that plague Occupy Wall Street: the American and French Revolutions.

I hate revisionist history. It’s also difficult to enumerate all of the reasons and events that led to the American Revolution. It’s really hard to take off “presentism” goggles as we try to look back into history and learn from the events of the past.

Fact: George Washington was the leader of the American armies during the revolution.
Opinion: George Washington was a badass and an impeccable leader of men.

For many people in the US, my statement that George Washington was a badass is merely an opinion and may be refuted is tantamount to speaking heresy in front of an inquisitor during the Spanish Inquisition or having gone up to McCarthy with the news that I’m a communist. Now that I’ve put that seed of thought in your mind, let me try to amend your opinion by saying that I’m not a communist. Of course whether you believe that or not remains to be seen. Hopefully you haven’t passed judgement on me and decided the rest of this post is not worth reading.

In his book, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama explains that there is only one right that a human being can protect on his/her own – his/her right to life. Any other “right” that we believe we have is given to us by the social system we live under. I don’t have a right to speak my mind. In a different community, I could be silenced via censorship, incapacitation, imprisonment or death. However, the US Constitution is a social contract that states that as a citizen of the US, I have the right to speak my mind. My government protects my freedom of speech.

People say that capitalism is about a free market. If there’s a demand then I should be allowed to meet that demand. I don’t have a demand for cocaine but I know there’s a demand out there for it. Why shouldn’t I be permitted to procure, process and sell cocaine? Because the public has deemed it to be a hazard to the well-being of the population? Why should I care about that? I have to put food on the table, clothes in the closet and maintain a roof over my head. If selling cocaine is my ticket to doing so then I should have the freedom to do it.

Except capitalism is simply an economic system that defines a system of interactions of a portion of human society. So then we have to think about how society works and I think the best way is to look at the social contract.

People have banded together to pool resources in order to better their lives. A village of people didn’t need everyone to be hunters. There needed to be people to build and maintain homes, gather and process food stuffs, rear and educate children, etc. Now the hunters are valued because their efforts are risky but the rewards are quite worth the effort. They didn’t always come home with enough to feed the village though. The gatherers in the village were able to sustain them so that in turn they could get a piece of meat as well. The homebuilders made sure that they were protected from the elements and could have something to eat when they needed it. Those who were entrusted to rear and educate the children were also given sustenance and protect for the service they provided. All of this implied one other thing – They didn’t hurt each other. Thus completing the social contract.

This social contract works beautifully except under two conditions – the extremes of abundance and poverty. If a hungry and more physically powerful hunter is hungry but the gatherer has only found enough food for himself, what’s stopping the hunter from taking what the gatherer obviously cannot protect? If there’s so much food around that a homebuilder can barely walk without tripping over food, what incentive does he have to make sure anyone else has a working roof over their head? Then there’s the danger of the having lived through each extreme. Fortunes have disappeared faster than Kim Kardashian’s nuptial vows (and morals). It shifts the reptilian core of the brain into overdrive. We lose our sense of perspective. (Read more about it here)

The US Constitution is a very well written social contract. Many people feel that this contract has been violated. I think that’s the driving force behind Occupy Wall Street. Then again that’s also the driving force behind the Tea Party (Here’s a bit of insight into what I think about the Tea Party). At the heart of the matter, we have a social contract that can be AMENDED. There haven’t been many amendments to the US Constitution in the past few decades. Since the number of possible exceptions seems small enough to be considered negligible, there is no American of voting age that has seen more than 5 of the 27 amendments to the US Constitution ratified. Only one of those amendments saw anything more than a clarification of administrative guidelines (Amendment 23 – allowing the citizens of DC to have a vote for the US Presidency).

We’re basically living under the same rules that governed the Roaring 20s. Except that we have more government regulation. How? Each branch has exerted new powers yet bypassed the system in place. We have the Department of Education, which is un-Constitutional. Unless we ratified an AMENDMENT. The federal government gives money to religious organizations under the guise of non-profit aid. What happened to “separation of church and state”? Warren Buffett pays less in taxes than his secretary…this depends on perspective. Buffett’s sum total tax contribution is far higher than his secretary’s but he loses a significantly smaller percentage of his income than his secretary.

People conveniently forget that during the American Revolution there were plenty of Loyalists. We even coined our own term for a traitor via the actions of one named, Benedict Arnold. If there were an American Patriot version of Dante’s Inferno, Benedict Arnold would be in the ninth circle being tortured with Judas, Brutus and Cassius. I’ve seen a number of people talk about how they have jobs and they’re working and sacrificing and didn’t waste time on a useless degree. These people don’t want to be associated with the 99% but they don’t realize that they are.

In the lead up to the French Revolution, the bourgeoisie were the middle class merchants that were richer than the nobility but had none of the political clout. They were loaning money to those nobles then suffered embarrassment as those nobles refused to pay them back. The revolution wouldn’t have happened if those bourgeois merchants had been given low ranking titles but the nobles were too disconnected to society to realize the powder keg they were continually kicking around while lighting up tobacco.

So what do we have with Occupy Wall Street…

1) We have an economic system that’s losing clout with the rest of the world. The Nikkei index of Japan continues to serve as a stalwart hedge for the other world markets. Oil is no longer tied into the value of the dollar but rather a floating basket of powerful currencies which the euro and yuan have equal if not greater influence over the pricing of oil. Germany already is exerting a powerful influence on the market as they continue to bail out the rest of Europe. Brazil is exerting more industrial output and beginning to gain ground on the US in consumption. Do I really have to explain China?

2) The lowered standards of our public education system has left our young adults without an outlet into the rest of the world to find work. The universities have no accountability for their raised costs to their graduates or to the work force.

3) Our financial giants have taken advantage of our future by making outlandish bets with retirement funds. Thus keeping a large part of the population stuck in the work force. This created a stall in the promotion cycle that would have opened up positions for new college graduates (saddled with debt) to take on and carve out a niche for themselves. This has also created a further disconnect between production employees and administration. (Want a good example of this in comedic extreme? Read Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.)

4) A devaluation of the arts has led to a dearth in creativity. We value creativity in marketing, design, journalism, engineering, medicine and politics. We don’t value anyone who studies those disciplines responsible for engendering creativity. A degree in art history doesn’t mean the person is incapable of doing research in other fields; it just means a bit of training on technical language. Given the amount of training that’s given to new employees on company procedures and jargon, the idea that a degree in the subject field seems preposterous.

So given all these ills why is Occupy Wall Street important? Because in the elections that went by last week, we once again saw a sweeping return of incumbency. Those students want a faster change. Why? Because they don’t have the time or savings to weather a financial storm. Yet they’re seeing so many hunkering down to protect their lavish way of life at the cost of many others just wanting a chance to scratch out a niche of their own.

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