Signs in the windows of the Chicago Board of Trade read “We are the 1%.”
More on that sign in a minute.
An offshoot of the so-far ineffectual Occupy Wall Street movement is the trend of the poorest 99% of Americans sharing their personal tragedies with the world through the internet meme We Are The 99%.
Some quick observations:
1. Way too many people recount similar tales of “sick with no healthcare.” I have health insurance and am fortunate enough to be able to access some of the best hospitals in the country, and even I can tell that the system is horrifically broken up. This grievance is legitimate, but has absolutely nothing to do with Occupy Wall Street.
2. Way too many people tell us that they have a degree, a masters, or a Ph.D, but almost none tell you what the degree is in. We been here before. As was the case in that Economist article, I’m guessing that none of these advanced degrees are in Chemistry or Bio-medical Engineering. Pro-tip #1 for the college students out there: if the classes in your major have more than 80 students enrolled in them, you won’t find a job. Pro-tip #2, if by junior year you haven’t migrated from the courses titled “Introduction to…” to “Theory of…” you also won’t find a job.
But there is something more duplicitous at work here, a much more deeply-seated psychological problem with the entire movement. As much as I utterly loathe VCs, investment bankers and hedge fund traders, I find myself puzzled by the level of conformity, acquiescence, and downright submissiveness that characterizes the Occupy Wall Street movement.
If they truly believed that the system was as corrupt, unfair, heartless, and criminal as they claim it is, if they truly believe that the police and politicians were thugs and cronies of the corporate elite, if they truly believed that the system was in such utter need of revolution, they should be revolting. In fact, if the system was that bad, it would be their moral and ethical obligation to violently oppose it.
Let me give an example. Once upon a time there was a faraway land where the people were kept in a state of poverty by their corrupt and ideologically-driven masters, where the people were confined from birth to the underclass, and where any attempt to organize locally or establish financial independence was met with brutal physical oppression from the authorities. Life was a revolving door between poverty and prison. And for decades, all of their pleas for help and justice were met with blind indifference.
Then one day, a voice rose up in the dark, a voice too beautiful, too captivating, and too compelling to ignore. For the first time and at long last, the world was forced to sit up and take notice.
Of course I’m talking about South Central Los Angeles.
Had it not been for NWA or the legions of gangsta progeny, America would know nothing of carjacking, drive-bys, and gang bangers (at least the kind that involves guns and Raiders hats). All the community activists, outreach programs, and jawboning politicians combined didn’t do as much for the plight of the residents of Compton than gangsta rap. Rap made Compton and its problems matter ever-so-slightly to the world at large.
Compton today isn’t any less of a ghetto for its residents than it was in 1985. But NWA made it less of a dead-end. They opened a door, and a lot of people left Compton through it. The point is that NWA and other rappers found a way to simultaneously make themselves exceedingly wealthy and get the world to acknowledge that the drug problems and gang violence in LA was actually a complex collision of race, police brutality, poor education, economic inequality, and a lack of options.
No one else did that, and a lot of people tried. Why was NWA successful, when other artists and politicians weren’t? Because NWA was legitimately dangerous to the establishment. Not because they were gangsters or drug dealers. NWA was dangerous because white middle class kids were listening to it. Ice Cube and Dr. Dre breached the cultural defenses and ended up exactly were their kind of people were never supposed to be – in the homes of the white and well-off, talking to their kids. Compton and similar forgotten ghettos became the setting of countless Hollywood films in the 80’s and 90’s. South Central was a talking point in national politics.
In the sixties, the hippie forefathers of today’s wannabe youtube sensations occupied the offices of their universities to protest relationships between their schools and Defense Department thinktanks. In other words, they felt that universities doing research for the defense department during wartime was so immoral and unethical that they actually took them over. The result was that many universities severed their ties with the military and defense establishment, and many commentators blame these 60’s “occupations” for the driving universities to the far liberal left in the ensuing decades.
My point is not to praise the hippies or hold up gangsta rap as an example of productive social reform. My point is simply that they were able to get the change they wanted by putting the system at risk. It isn’t enough to put yourself at risk if there isn’t any risk to the establishment. You have to put yourself at risk by hurting them.
To wit: Instead of occupying Wall Street, a Manhattan street that most bankers and traders never set foot on, why don’t you attempt to occupy the offices of Goldman Sachs? Not hurt anyone, not destroy property, just stage a sit-in in their offices. Ride the elevator up with 200 of your closest friends and hold your vegan drum circle right there in the middle of the bond trading desk. Think of the attention that would bring. Think of the message that would send to the people you blame for the world’s problems: We can get to you. We can interfere with the money.
But the reality is that no one wants to do that not because it’s dangerous (it isn’t really), not because they don’t want to go to jail (some of the protestors would actually invite this), but because while the people in the street might hate the corrupt system, the people posting photos to that We Are The 99% tumblr don’t. Not really. They know the system is corrupt, of course, but up until a few years ago, most of those 99%ers complaining about their degrees were hoping to be on the other side of the corruption.
How do I know this? Because setting aside the people with health problems, no one put those kinds of messages up in 2005, when the future looked up and everyone dreamed of one day being at the top. No one ever held up a sign on a web cam that read “All I can do with my MFA is get a $95,000 a year job on Madison Avenue” or “I’m an art major doing design for a web 2.0 startup with zero revenue and $20 million in seed capital from Kleiner Perkins.” As long as there was home equity to borrow off of (“because real estate always goes up!”) or another VC ready ready to throw millions at ill-conceived websites with bubbly logos and names that end in “-er” but leave off the “e”, then everyone was happy.
Let’s be blunt: before 2007 we all knew that the economy was a carny hustle, but we were okay with it because we all thought we were the carnies doing the hustling. Do I need to remind everyone that in the dot-com era, Yahoo traded for $246 a share before ever booking a dime in profit? Do I need to remind everyone that in 2005, 40% of the homes that were bought were second homes? You knew the system was a sham, but you thought you could win. Only now did you learn that you were the rube all along, and now they want the socio-economic equivalent of midway prize or a refund.
What the people holding up sad messages of economic woe want is not the system to change but to be on the other side of the divide. Most of those complaints, especially among the young, amount to “I lost my job and now things suck.” The message is that they want another one. They would love to get that Wall Street or Madison Avenue job. They would love to work for Facebook or Google, or CNN or Fox News. Those jobs pay very well. People would love to be in the top end of the bell curve, but they don’t want the curve flattened out.
And that’s how it’s always been. Do you think Easy-E or Dr. Dre wanted to live in Compton in peace, free from police and gang violence? No, they wanted to be millionaires, and they weren’t going to let the local gangs or the local cops stop them.
Do you really think the hippies wanted communism, or socialism? No, they wanted access to the old boy network. They wanted to be part of the establishment. They wanted control. They wanted ownership.
When there is a system that gives the top 1% ownership of 42% of the nations financial assets, the 99% don’t want to tear that system down. They want to squeeze into that 1%.
Everybody on the outside wants in, and everybody already in wants up. And once they get to the top, they want to pull up the ladder and close the door.
And those protestors, banging on that door, all they want is to get in so they can close it again behind them. Don’t kid yourself that all of a sudden 99% of the public because egalitarians and socialists.
And that’s what the sign in the CBOT really means: We, who want to bring the system down, are the 1%. Everyone else just wants in.
What this mass protest really represents is a new twist on Ghandi’s famous advice: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
And then you become them.