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, 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, 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.