Protest and Consensus

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Whether you’re with, against, or completely disengaged from the protests on Wall Street, I hope I can get you to admit that people are, in fact, there. Further, whether or not you think they’re there for the right reasons, or even no reason at all, when you gauge the mood of the collective it can be summarized as frustration, at the very least. What’s the message these protesters are trying to get across? You could say that there isn’t one, because there have been no concrete demands. I think that’s a dodge, however, and that there is a message, of disagreement with the status quo and a search for something else.

Many of these problems with the status quo have to do with inequality, i.e., rich people. The current system has rich people because society in an abstract sense decides to allow them to use more of its collective resources because they’ve traded something of value for those resources, or maybe just played the game really well. However, wealth granted by consent can be revoked or appropriated, and one of the best ways to ensure this happens is to make those gains seem ill-gotten. The protests are about a lot of things, but one of the common threads is that a lot of people don’t feel like they’ve had a fair shake[2], which of course implies that other people benefited from unfair advantages. Guess who those people are.

Still, absent some sort of system that is obviously more “fair”, it’s safe to say that the current wealth distribution isn’t going anywhere, because it’s got inertia on its side. If the average person keeps getting poorer while the rich get richer, though, it’s unsustainable, and from a purely economic standpoint the average person will do better off under no system at all, and once that point is reached it’s only a matter of time until equilibrium is restored. Guess how that happens.

Those who disapprove of the protests, for one reason or another, soon advance about half a dictionary page and then dismiss them. From what I’ve read, the dismissal takes a familiar form; first outline what you personally don’t like about the protests[1], then proceed to say words to the effect that “even if the protesters promulgated demands that you find acceptable, the protests wouldn’t work anyways”.

Why wouldn’t they? Well, for one, it’s been a while since The Powers That Be seriously caved on anything due to public pressure, so it’s difficult to imagine exactly what success would look like. To employ the vernacular, The Establishment has the money, the weapons, and the organization with which to deploy both. But if the revolutions in the Middle East have taught us anything, it’s that every regime looks pretty strong up until the point when it doesn’t. These revolutions didn’t happen because a bunch of guys with signs and rocks can outfight a professional police force/army. The police are just folks with a job, quaintly described as “to serve and protect”, and are ultimately comprised by the same sorts of people who end up on the spicy side of a pepper spray canister. So if society, in some abstract sense, decides that it’s going to organize itself differently, then the police, the army, and the bureaucracy will eventually follow along.

This is not to imply that #OccupyWallStreet will become a revolution, especially if you’re thinking Bastille Day, “Eat The Rich” sort of revolution. It’s more of a reminder, that for you to have something you’ve got to get everyone else to agree to let you have it. Whether or not you think it’s right, there are some increasingly frustrated people out there who are beginning to entertain the idea that Wall Street is just a place, bankers are just people in suits, and a bank balance is just numbers on a screen. So maybe it’s narcissism, maybe these people don’t understand economics, or that inequality is the necessary for dynamic global capitalism. It doesn’t matter. In the end, the difference between occupying the corner office and the corner outside comes from convincing people that you should be in one over the other.

1. Establishing your own bona fides as either an expert on protests, economics, finance, or just generally making sure that you don’t come across as a Wall Street apologist recommended but not necessary.
Obviously biased, but it captures something of the hopelessness and frustration that underlie these protests.  

Related posts:

  1. Protestors Get Maced
  2. Credit Ratings, Market Crashes, and the Cover Story
  3. #OccupyWallStreet, or Get a Job on Wall Street?
  4. Article I, Section 9, Clause 8: No titles of nobility?

26 Responses to Protest and Consensus

  1. Guy Fox says:

    First, I submitted a post last week in which OWS makes an appearance, but it wasn’t intended as a snarky reply to this (I wrote it before this appeared).

    Second, isn’t it a little infantile to be against ‘the status quo’ or ‘the Establishment’ or ‘the powers that be’ or, simply ‘them’? Whether you take it as a conspiracy against ‘those who haven’t gotten a fair shake’ or just the sum of a lot of cruel, but individual, decisions, it certainly comes across as an aimless plea from someone who hasn’t even really looked into his/her problem. It’s not a claim of “this is what’s going on, and this is what I want to change, and here’s how”; it’s more like “he has more than me. boo hoo! gimme more!”. (And if you’re a hipster with 8 years of post-secondary behind you but no degree, for example, you got your fair shake and blew it, amigo.)

    It doesn’t take much education to say “political power is distributed out of proportion to head count, which ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. It happens through campaign donations and lobbyists, so I’m gonna find out how the laws on these two things work and start there.” But then, there wouldn’t be much communal fellow-feeling or bandwagon to that, would there? It would require doing something to combat the problem rather than being something against something else. Jebus, occupy Congress! Flood your representatives’ inboxes with drafts of bills! DO something but pose not.

    • Lopt says:

      Don’t worry about it, snark is fully expected and, if clever, appreciated.

      First, in flusher times “he has more than me. boo hoo! gimme more!” merits and usually receives the retort “get a job!”, but increasingly it sounds more like “I have to choose between food, rent, debts, and bills, and I can’t choose all of them– why are these other guys getting bailed out?”. The question is especially pressing when the speaker contributes to society in some clearly essential field and when “those guys” are politically influential financiers. That speaker, and not some reeking hippie, is the average person at the protests.

      I know that cliches like “the status quo” or “the Establishment” are kind of grating, but it’s both exhausting and confusing to have to keep coming up with synonyms for the same sort of thing merely because it’s overused and trite. My own views and potential solutions/suggestions are irrelevant for the purpose of the post, since I was trying to explain how protests like #OWS can seem ineffectual but actually augur profound societal change.

      To recapitulate, in non-warlord controlled countries (like the United States) you get to keep what you have because by and large no one is trying to take it away. #OWS is about questioning the assumptions that the banks and bankers deserve their compensation and whether that compensation is good for the collective. Finding the answer to be no, the protestors are then looking for some way to make future compensation to the financial sector more “fair” to everyone else or, more radically, to redistribute those assets controlled by the bankers and their firms. That seems profound and societally changing enough, but…

      The thing that’s different about these protests is that while they’re democratic, they’re not republican in the sense that the change they seek to implement is not strictly “call your local Congressman” sort of change (although it could be), but might instead be a “new Constitution” through possibly extralegal means sort of change. The United States has had an excellent track record for resolving its problems while avoiding the latter, but as I alluded to in the post itself, when they game you’re playing is broken, you try to fix it, and if that fails, you caucus the players[1] and try to implement new rules. It’s unclear how many protestors are actually there for the caucusing and how many are there for the pose, but when you’re trying to make things happen an army of posers still looks and maybe even acts like an army.

      When you look at the 53% vs. the 99% meme, both have fairly implicit (and obvious) interpretations. Respectively, they’re “half or more think we do better under these conditions than what we expect you 99%ers would implement” and “this system is broken, 99% of everyone could do better if we changed things”. Leaven the former with a little “misery loves company” and the latter with “starry-eyed dreamer” and you’ve got a more or less complete understanding of what the debate’s about.

      I think the caricature of “a hipster with 8 years of [useless] post-secondary” is a little over the top– there just aren’t that many people like that and there’s thousands at these protests. The demographics of these protests are (as someone else noted) fairly broad, and so that sort of thing isn’t just an ad hominem, it’s an utterly unhelpful ad hominem because it’s false.

  2. Dan Dravot says:

    Let’s not call them “the 99%”. Let’s commit aggravated, premeditated Thought Crime and tell the truth. They say that’s a Radical Act, right? Well, if it’s “radical” to tell your own personal “truth” (snerk), I bet it’s a flat order of magnitude more radical to tell the actual truth that describes reality and applies to everybody.

    So let’s call them the Rich White Kids.

    Having established my bona-fides as an expert on protests, I’ll now spit on my hands and start slitting a few throats.

    99% of the US is not composed of narcissistic, entitled white middle-class pothead college grads, with useless degrees and no skills, who resent having to choose among the few jobs they’re actually qualified for, and adamantly refuse to learn any skills actually in demand.

    The rich white kids are not even a majority of recent college grads. How many of the rich white kids do you think majored in engineering and got decent grades? The real 99% is the people who did, or worked out some equivalent: The people the rich white kids want to parasitize. I’ll gladly pay to support retards, lunatics, and even single mothers, but these little toads? No.

    When you pull Rich White Kid Barbie’s string, she says Contributing to society is haaard!

    I do understand, Barbie. Much better than you, in fact. It’s hard for all of us, you see, and most of us aren’t even lazy assholes. But I’m a lazy asshole myself, just like you, and somehow I seem to manage OK. So don’t tell me it can’t be done. It merely requires you to give people something they want every time you want them to give you something you want. Simple. So simple, even Barbie can understand.

    The rich white kids are protesting the fact that a middle-class income is not a hereditary entitlement. They are enraged by the lack of a caste system in this country.

    Dear Left Wing: Are you pulling my f*****g leg? What exactly do you think the Treaty of Paris was about?

    P.S. Look it UP, for god’s sake.

    from a purely economic standpoint the average person will do better off under no system at all

    Ummm… the hunter/gatherer lifestyle is a lot less fun than you think. Just a word to the wise, there.

    • sunshinefiasco says:

      Well, Cap’n Capitalism, it’s almost like parents/high schools/colleges/professors/the government/advertisements should stop telling everyone to study whatever they want and should offer scholarships and incentives to push people into key industries. But we just make so much more money this way!

      –And for the record, that shit fools a whole bunch on non-white, non-rich kids too. Who then, best case scenario, wind up in teaching or social work, and who are then far too tired to get active politically at all, whether that means occupying wall street or helping someone run for selectman.

      • mitthrawnuruodo says:

        The problem isn’t so much that you can’t be what you want to be. The problem is that you can’t get a history degree and insist on being paid like a banker.

        • sunshinefiasco says:

          Most of the recent grads I know aren’t looking to be paid like a banker. Most of them are wondering how to pay bills and pay loans at the same time and fantasizing about what it must be like to have a dental plan. And these are grads from a small liberal arts school with a bit of a rep– a home for entitled rich white kids.

          They’re hoping, ideally, to take their BA and find an entry level position somewhere that ideally doesn’t involve bartending or Macy’s. And between all 3 of those kinds of jobs, they’re competing with bartenders, retail employees, people with master’s degrees, people with 2 years of experience, and people with both. Honestly, if the bartending/Macy’s paid enough to cover loans and rent (or if it had that holy of holies, health insurance) at the same time, they might not mind so much.

          • claudius says:

            What capitalist system allows government loans that create an tuition price/debt bubbles? We’re not in a capitalist system.

            The reason why education is overpriced is because the Fed gives out student loans with artificially low interest rates. FYI: That’s why a useless degree costs so much. If they had just left it up to private banks to give out student loans, education would reflect its market value, and have less funding for bullshit (that comes from overpriced tuition) .

    • waxbanks says:

      So let’s call them the Rich White Kids.

      Here’s a revolutionary idea: try to have the faintest idea what the fuck you’re talking about.

      One way to do this is to spend time within a hundred feet of the protestors themselves, rather than staring at your television or computer screen, in order to see (‘with your own eyes’ as the rubes say) what the demographics of the protest are actually like. This will hurt your ego – and that’s fairly obviously a big deal for you – but it will help everything else.

      Go on, try it! You’ll…well, not like it, but try it anyway.

  3. Fifi says:

    So, essentially, it seems like the big issue some people have with the OWS protesters is that they won’t provide a sound bite for the media or provide a quick and simple ideological soundbite so they can be easily categorized and dismissed (though obviously the “they’re all just dirty hippies” gambit is an attempt to do just this). It’s a bit like some people think it’s unacceptable to bring attention to an issue if you can’t provide a solution or do so in a way that doesn’t seduce a particular viewer in the way they like to be seduced. It’s a bit like, the OWS isn’t branded and advertised in way that reinforces one’s identity (if one is willing to sacrifice one’s supposed values simply because of an identity issue, it tends to indicate that the values aren’t actually values but another prop used to construct a false self image).

    • TheCoconutChef says:

      I can understand people not wanting a certain label because it doesn’t correspond to what they think they are, but not wanting ANY label seems a bit ludicrous.

      I mean, these people are in the street. Are they there for nothing?

      • Fifi says:

        Perhaps the issues people are there for are more complex than a mere one minute soundbite. There are plenty of people talking about their own reasons for participating in OWS and discussing what the protests are about (including Zizek – so the info is out there it’s just not being served up in simplistic soundbites or pretending there’s a magical solution). Besides, the protesters have given themselves a label “the 99%”.

        • qubitman says:

          The thing is that any effective human being realizes why being so vague and undefined is weak and useless to make any kind of change at all. I know it’s not sexy or fun or interesting, but if they really want to make any of the changes they say they want to make there are better ways. Problems with police? Talk to the ACLU, they may not be able to help you directly, but they’ll have a good idea where to start. Corporate accountability? Start canvassing. Get people out on the streets talking to other people, talk to the organizations that do that kind of work. Don’t like the politicians? Once again, start canvassing. Phone calls, lobbyists, research and boring as fuck letters to many different people are the thing that is going to make stuff happen. It takes forever, and you will lose your erection long before you even start to make anything resembling progress, but that’s the way it goes.

          That is why I can’t take this seriously. They’re doing it wrong. This is catharsis, it is not how these kinds of things are done. For fuck’s sake they aren’t even trying to disrupt the flow of business.

          They don’t want to make things better in a way that we all know works, they don’t want to scare people in a way that we know works, there’s nothing left for them to be besides a bunch of idiots crying that they want more money.

          • DonDrapersAcidTrip says:

            Yeah, writing letters and making phone calls is really going to turn America’s two tiered just system completely around.

        • TheCoconutChef says:

          “Perhaps the issues people are there for are more complex than a mere one minute soundbite.”

          These sounds like dodges to me. There would be no effective difference to an outside observer between a very complex ideological group and just people that don’t know what they’re doing (none would be able to offer a coherent description of themselves).

          Not only this, but if they don’t provide the soundbite, somebody else will. It’s inevitable.

          Right now that soundbite is “rich white kid” and “dirty hippies”.

          • rapscallione says:

            I think the “big issue” that people have with protesters is that there is absolutely no way these protests, in its current form, are going to amount to much. But the people still down there are still delusional, they still think they’re affecting the system, when in reality what they’re doing is just allowing it to continue.

            It just has the appearance of creating change, when it’s really just pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.

  4. Fifi says:

    Nice way to ignore that unions have started to support the protest, those teachers and nurses are such rich spoiled white kids.

    • Joe says:

      You mean they’ve leaped into the protest to co-opt it for their own ends.

      • Fifi says:

        Joe, in a collective protest where it’s not about one single group’s agenda and those already on the ground have invited and welcome the unions to join them, your assertion is pretty meaningless. Something that is shared and representative of a diversity of people is concerned with everyone’s ends and working together – as alien a concept as that seems to be for people who apparently, ahem, think the whole world is and all people are always about exploiting other people (like they’re objects) for their own ends. The sort of faux-Darwinism that’s usually used to promote this kind of exploitation is “survival of the fittest” with no understanding of what that truly means (and it usually really translates to “might equals right so I bear no responsibility for my exploitation of others in this way” and is a slightly adult version of “well everyone else is doing it…” that children use as an excuse).

  5. Joe says:

    Many of these problems with the status quo have to do with inequality, i.e., rich people. The current system has rich people because society in an abstract sense decides to allow them to use more of its collective resources because they’ve traded something of value for those resources, or maybe just played the game really well. However, wealth granted by consent can be revoked or appropriated, and one of the best ways to ensure this happens is to make those gains seem ill-gotten.

    Ugh. “Society decided” it, therefore, “society” can take it away and play with it. What a charming excuse to butt in to other people’s business. How is what you’re describing here supposed to be different from what caused this problem everyone is upset about to begin with? The only difference is who gets to do the playing with other people’s wealth. The 99% really do want to be the 1%, I guess.

    If the average person keeps getting poorer while the rich get richer, though, it’s unsustainable, and from a purely economic standpoint the average person will do better off under no system at all, and once that point is reached it’s only a matter of time until equilibrium is restored. Guess how that happens.

    Well, it’s a good thing that doesn’t describe the US economy.

    Obviously biased, but it captures something of the hopelessness and frustration that underlie these protests.

    This internet meme has been addressed previously on Partial Objects.

  6. sunshinefiasco says:

    Statements like this:

    “Why wouldn’t they? Well, for one, it’s been a while since The Powers That Be seriously caved on anything due to public pressure, so it’s difficult to imagine exactly what success would look like. ”

    are one of many reasons that the left can’t get anything done, and why it’s highly unlikely that OWS will do anything.

    Liberals (and I am about as lefty as they get) are so busy being right, that we can’t even realize: The Powers That Be do nothing but cave to public pressure. They’re terrified of it. They just cave to the right.

    Why the right? Because the left is so disorganized that they don’t know their ass from their elbow anymore.

  7. thestage says:

    “What’s the message these protesters are trying to get across?”

    I’m fairly apolitical, but lets be real here. They’re protesting against the same things bourgeois youth have protested against since any of those words were first used in concert: existence.

  8. suicism says:

    Thank you for this post. I’ve visited three Occupies in three separate cities over the past two weeks and didn’t find them to be any more “disorganized” (or entitled or misguided or merely “cathartic”) than I have any of the other protests I’ve witnessed or taken part in over the past fifteen to twenty years. Frankly, I’m a little dismayed by the vitriol shown by so many. The Occupy protests to me seem merely a calm–if nearly desperate–attempt by a large group of otherwise unattached individuals to speak against the socio-economic inequality in this country. In many ways it’s nothing new and nothing surprising–the peasants have always risen up against the wealthy–but it is, in comparison to the economic-related youth uprisings in other countries, better organized and apparently more interested in compromise.

    I don’t know. At least it’s something. I’d much rather see the unemployed masses gathering together in public to talk and scheme and gnash their teeth as a group than I would see them glazed-eyed in front of a television.

  9. Fifi says:

    Rich kids (of any skin tone or ethnic background) don’t have student loans to pay off (they don’t need them or good grades to get into top ranking schools) and they don’t have to worry about jobs (often even having one isn’t necessary but even if their parents do want them working they find a “good” job for them).

    • claudius says:

      Are you talking about the US? Not quite.

      No Students loans – true
      Don’t need good grades to get into top ranking schools – false
      Don’t have to worry about jobs – false

      More rich kids that slack do not get into a good school, nor will they get a good job if they have lackluster resume experience. America isn’t China (yet).

      • Fifi says:

        claudius, being rich isn’t merely being upper middle class, it’s being rich. The point is that apparently people commenting here who trot out the “rich white kids who don’t want to pay back student loans or work but be supported by the state” trope don’t even understand what privileges being rich actually provides most rich kids (white or otherwise). Sure upper middle class kids often have a lot of privileges and access to relatively plentiful luxuries so appear “rich” to people who have never know anyone who is actually wealthy but in real world terms upper middle class and rich/wealthy – the 1% that is referred to – really do get all kinds of privileges generally available to the other 99%. Some people and families who are rich appreciate this but trying to make it all about individuals (either yourself or trying to make the protesters into a cliche to serve one’s own purposes) when the protest is centred around the imbalance of power between citizens and corporations and how this corrupts democracy. Since you’re unfamiliar with what real world privileges that the 1% benefit from, I take it you don’t actually know anyone with a trust fund or who is actually rich?

  10. Rooster says:

    If anything, this is a shot at shifting the Overton window to the left. You can’t get any serious policy-making done with the Tea Party around and a demoralized democratic party, so a bunch of nuts at the left even things out.