Posh kids on iphones, no concerted message, and a public dressing down by Jon Snow – Occupy Wall Street: the protest we love to hate. But is there something in it?
After managing to read the whole of Time AND New Statesman on the train this weekend, I’m as educated as I’m ever going to be, and my conclusion is – there may well be. The protestors’ rally against a tide of rising inequality rings true, even if the groups’ modus operandi are bottom-clenchingly cringy.
Occupy Wall Street protestor David Graeber explains: “We are the 99%”. Graeber’s referring to the 99% of Americans whose average yearly income is $54,792, compared to the other 1%’s average yearly income of $1,530,773. Now while $54,792 may not seem that bad (yes please) – the point is that the money (and power) to control the 99% of peoples’ lives is held by the top 1%. The vested interests of the few are supposedly trumping the disparate wants of the majority. A view that is harder to disagree with when we learn that between 1979 and 2007, the share of total income for the top 1% increased from 10% to 20%, at the expense of a falling share of the income for the other 99% of the population.
The idea that an elite hold the reigns of our lives is supported by a recent analysis of the relationships between 43,000 transnational corporations (TNCs), which shows that a relatively small group of companies, mainly banks, hold disproportionate power over the global economy. To be precise, the study has found that there was a core of 1,318 companies with interlocking relationships, which had a tie to at least two other companies (on average, to twenty). Between them, this core represents 20% of global operating revenues, as well as control (through ownership)) of the majority of the world’s large blue chip and manufacturing firms. Even more powerful was the “super-entity” of the top 147 interconnected firms which controlled 40% of the total wealth of the network.
But it’s not just the wealth and relationships of TNCs which highlight this disparity. China’s increasingly restless populace is rocking the boat too. Widening income gaps are part of the reason for the dramatic increase of “mass incidents” of protest in scary waryChina, rising from 74,000 in 2004 to 180,000 in 2010. Australia, Canada, Irelandand the UK have also seen a rise in income inequality – in the UK, the gap famously widening more under Tony Blair than under Thatcher. And with the global population due to hit the 7 billion mark any day soon, the effects of income inequality are going to become more exaggerated. For example, experts (from the UN Population Reference Bureau) believe that the economic crisis pushed an additional 64 million people into extreme poverty. With 8 billion looming (by 2025), that’s an awful lot of inequality.
On the other hand, while OWS has a point (i.e. we need to tackle rising inequality) it needs to be more intelligent about the way it proposes change. It seems that their primal reaction is to lynch the people “at the top” – those evil, nasty bastards who are making all the money. Hence the occupation of Wall Street. And this is a reaction which has been given credence for a while now. After the banking crisis, much public anger was directed towards the individuals packing up their cardboard boxes, walking out of the great glass towers; personal anger which is still holding strong years after the financial crisis as shown by Joris Luyendijk’s anthropological study of bankers. Companies at the top are considered greedy giants (Nestle), and the people who consume their goods soulless mignons. Louise Mensch’s views on theOccupy Wall Street protestors who drank Starbucks Coffee (as voiced on HIGNFY) exemplified this well.
But isn’t this all a bit too easy; a bit too George Bush – vilifying the top, private businesses and interests, and martyring the middle classes with their student loans? I feel it may be. And it seems that the problem is with the system, rather than those particular firms, banks, lobbyists and politicians at the top.
Common sense alone will tell you that of COURSE, all businesses, both large and small are going to operate in a way which maximizes every chance of success. If they didn’t they’d fail. Following any principle other than their own continuation would be madness/the end for most private firms, and we’re all happy to publicly lament the closure of a factory and the removal of jobs. Even not-for-profit organizations are often driven by the need for a “surplus” and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that the third sector provides a viable alternative to the capitalist system. There are some rare and beautiful exceptions such as the clothing company Patagonia, who has asked their customers to stop buying their products in an effort to control their environmental impact. But for the most part, we’re all just trying to make ends meet.
And in the current system, “making ends meet” means growth, which means making a profit. And profits can only be achieved when a margin is generated – something from nothing, often achieved through economies of scale. Economies of scale require size, and size + profits=power.
So what can we expect? Occupy Wall Street is right – 99% should not be living under the jurisdiction of 1%. On the other hand, what practical, applicable solutions are there which we can invoke to change the way our world works? The system needs to be changed fundamentally – so if the protesters (and the rest of us) are serious about putting things right, I think we need to put our collective thinking caps on, rather than wailing around the place feeling sorry for ourselves.
Harsh but fair?