One meme that the right has tried to spread about the Occupy movement is
that it isn't about anything. These protesters — what do they
want? Where is their list of goals? How do they expect to negotiate for
whatever it is they want to achieve without a leader? Underlying these
questions is the assumption that the Occupiers are even talking to
their adversaries right now. It seems to me that much of the success of
Occupy — and it's been successful enough in changing the
conversation to issues of economic inequality that we've already reached
the "then they fight you" phase — has been in talking, not to
the top 1% and demanding anything, but to the other 99% and comparing
notes. On the broadest level, this exchange boils down to: "This sucks,
right?" "Oh, you think so too?" Which is basic, even embryonic —
but very, very important.
For another meme that the right has been pushing for the past thirty years
is that it's Morning in America; that as right-wing policies have been put
into force, life has gotten better and better; and if yours hasn't, it
demonstrates that you must be fundamentally defective in some way. This
last part used to be left as an implication, but with each standard bearer
on the right more
proudly simple-minded than the last, they're now just
blurting it out. The message of Occupy is that if you feel like the
rising tide of prosperity has left you treading water — or
drowning — you are not some contemptible aberration.
Not only are you not alone, you're in the majority. Only a
small coterie have seen their yachts lifted — and not
because they've contributed so much more to the world than did their
counterparts in the mid-20th century, but for systemic reasons. They've
used their influence to get tax policy rewritten in their favor, checks
on corporate power removed, and their grip on society strengthened. And,
yes, eventually specific legislation will be needed if this societal
divide is ever to be remedied. But that can wait until more people have
recognized that there is a societal divide, and on which side of it
they stand. You've seen the sign at various Occupy assemblies declaring
that "They only call it class warfare when we fight back"? Well, a
necessary step to fighting back is realizing that it's not just you who's
struggling — that you are part of a class. And that the
system is rigged against our class, that this sucks, and that life can be
better for us if we work together.
This is the recognition that the Occupy opponents want to head off. Pop
over to any big news site and the comments section will be full of people
sneering, "You want life to be better for you? Then stop whining and get a
job!" But there are at least three problems with this line of argument:
One, a big part of what people are upset about is how difficult it is to
get a job. Unemployment has been hovering near 10% for years now, a level
that was considered catastrophic not long ago; now those with the power to
do something about it just shrug and pass it off as the new normal.
Two, jobs aren't always the solution to the problem — all too
often they are the problem. To have to spend most of your waking
hours on this earth doing something you hate, in order to earn the
privilege of supporting yourself for another day so you can wake up and
do it again, worrying all the while that at any moment even that
might be taken away from you... is that not itself something to protest?
See, right-wing rhetoric notwithstanding, I don't think there are that
many people out there hellbent on kicking back and collecting government
benefits for nothing. In my experience, people tend to be pretty content
with their lot if they can get interesting work, paid at a fair wage, that
gives them the satisfaction of contributing to the world in some way. To
say that protesters should just go out and get jobs like these is merely a
less tasty version of "let them eat cake"; to say that they should go get
the soul-destroying kind is sadism.
Three — and this is the important one — "get a job"
deliberately misses the point of what "we want life to be better for us"
means. It doesn't mean that I want life to be better for me, and she
wants life to be better for her, and he wants life to be better for him.
It means that he wants life to be better for us, and she wants life
to be better for us, and I want life to be better for us.
So even if I were currently in need of one, my getting a job, even
a great one, would only get us one three-hundred-millionth of the way
to solving that problem. As the Occupy movement has highlighted, economic
injustice is a collective problem, and solving collective problems
requires collective action.
So when multibillionaire
calls for a rule that CEOs be required to pay taxes at a rate at least
as high as that of their secretaries, or a group of millionaires goes to
Capitol Hill to lobby for millionaires' tax breaks to be reversed,
detractors such as
Grover Norquist and
Gregg Easterbook are being willfully obtuse when they reply that
nothing is stopping anyone from paying more than they owe. Again: "we
think we should pay higher taxes" does not mean that I think I should pay
higher taxes, and he thinks he should pay higher taxes, and she thinks she
should pay higher taxes. It means that she thinks we should pay
higher taxes, and he thinks we should pay higher taxes, and I think
we should pay higher taxes. It's that whole collective action
thing again. And as numbers are the key advantage the 99% hold over the
1%, naturally the defenders of the status quo are going to use rhetorical
tricks to pretend collective action doesn't exist.
If forced to confront it, those of Norquist's stripe tend to argue that
this kind of collective decision-making is illegitimate because no group
has the right to impose a choice upon an individual who disagrees.
Except, of course, that libertarianism does just that, as
I've talked about before and as Norquist himself
admits. Eric Schoenberg, a professor at Columbia Business School, recently
confronted Norquist and asked whether, if he's so determined to do
away with taxation, he would opt out of the government services that taxes
pay for. Norquist said he would. Schoenberg asked why Norquist didn't
just move to Somalia, where no taxes are collected and no services are
provided; Norquist, in a cutesy bit of sophistry, replied that Somalia's
problem wasn't too little government but too much —
"competing governments" (i.e., militias) who "compete to be in charge of
pushing you around." But that's the whole point of the Somalia argument!
The problem with being free to do whatever you want is that there are
other people in the world, and if they are also free to do whatever they
want, one of the things they might want to do is make you do what they say
and kill you if you don't. You can try to defend yourself, but there's
only so much armament one person can pack. If enough people band together
against you, you will eventually find yourself outgunned. So if you want
any kind of quality of life, you have to be part of a collective as well
and submit to collective decision-making.
As noted, Norquist doesn't deny this. "I think government, up to a
certain point, advances human liberty," he has said, citing the usefulness
of a police force and judicial system "to prevent people from stealing
stuff out of your car, out of your house." This focus on "stuff" is
typical, as the chief way that libertarians differ from anarchists is in
their obsession with property rights. The irony is that while the word
"social" is anathema to libertarians in economic contexts, property is
itself a social construct. There's nothing intrinsic to my stuff that
makes it mine, and there have been cultures that would have been perplexed
by the notion that I had any right to keep others away from an object I
wasn't using. In ours, we have a social contract that we can each claim
stuff, usually by paying for it — money
being a social construct as well — and I'll respect your right
to keep me away from the stuff we collectively define as yours if you
respect my right to keep you away from the stuff we collectively define
as mine. If you say, "I never agreed to that! You all don't get
to collectively decide what we're going to do! I'll opt out of my
property rights if it means I don't have to respect yours!" and burgle my
apartment, there's a reasonable chance that some people who don't know
either of us will capture you and put you in jail, in order to enforce
the collective agreement that frees us from having to spend all our time
at home guarding our stuff. And libertarians are fine with this. In
fact, they insist on it.
The ironic thing about all those posts on the bottom half of the Internet
demanding that Occupy protesters stick to individual action to improve
their individual lives, rather than collective action to improve the lives
of their class, is that making such a post is itself a collective action.
Each of those messages was typed on a computer designed and built by other
people, processed by software thought up and implemented by other people,
transmitted by electrical lines laid by other people, written in a
language developed over the course of centuries by other people...
and you can say that about virtually everything we do. Everything one
accomplishes is really an achievement of multitudes. So if we contend that
some of the income from those accomplishments must be shared with one's
network of collaborators, i.e., the rest of society — if we
point out how absurd it is to think that 1% of the population could be
responsible for, and therefore deserve, 40% of the common wealth —
if we say that our current lopsided distribution of that wealth is therefore
indicative of serious systemic problems that need to be fixed —
then, sure, a libertarian can try to argue against us. But what he can't
do is say that it's somehow illegitimate to make these kinds of decisions
for anyone other than oneself. If it's legitimate to collectively invent
the notion of property and decide on rules about it that apply to all of
us, then it's equally legitimate to change those rules via the same method.
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