The Goals of Occupy Wall Street

I have become increasingly annoyed by the rhetorical line that the goals of Occupy Wall Street are unclear. Mainstream media outlets have been pushing this line from the beginning and many regular people have picked it up as their position. What these media outlets really mean is that protesters at occupations have not written up a press release with explicit goals. This is the only thing that journalists can parse and comprehend.

For those of us who can look at a set of slogans, arguments, and ideas and actually piece them together ourselves, the complaints have been clear from the very beginning. The protests are about economic inequality and undemocratic governance. Almost everything coming out of the occupations can easily be placed into one of those two categories or both.

The Wall Street venue points clearly to that. It is the epicenter of economic inequality and the epicenter of undemocratic political corruption. The now-famous “we are the 99% slogan” is an objection to the massive economic wealth controlled by 1% of the population. But, it is also clearly — and perhaps more obviously — a point about democracy. What kind of democracy is it that 1% of the population receives more political attention and government aid than the other 99%?

You could go on and on through just about everything that has been said or recorded at these protests, and you would see it time and time again: protesters are angry at rising inequality and the perception that government does not work for the majority of the people.

Now solutions to these big problems are hugely complicated. Would anyone seriously say that they have a five-point plan to eliminate unjust economic inequality or put the government back on a democratic path? Probably not. But what you would expect people to do is have a multitude of ideas, and that is what you are seeing. That perhaps is what has genuinely confused some. Protesters have raised all sorts of issues that they see as contributing to the inequality and non-representative governance that they are upset about. Although they don’t tag those complaints as being under the headings of inequality and non-democratic governance, it does not take too much effort to realize that is what they are about.

Figuring out how to tackle economic inequality and undemocratic governance is not an easy thing to do, and — surprise! — it might take some time to formulate a complete remedy. Hell, maybe even some months. But just because it is not easily done or easily communicated in sound bytes digestible by the press, that does not mean that the fight is without merit or aimless. As protesters struggle in general assemblies to put their ideas together, those who care about the issues they are protesting should not be discouraged by a lack of a complete platform. Instead, they should join those who are equally indignant about the current state of affairs and add their ideas to fix it.

A racial justice case for economic competency

There is a worthwhile open letter on racialicious about the whiteness of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The phenomenon of white men leading the movement is fairly predictable. The fact that the movement has a strong anarchist contingent makes it even more predictable: anarchist subcultures are almost entirely white and heavily male from what I have seen.

But that aside, the most interesting part of the letter comes at the end:

We believe the white people of #OccupyWallStreet need to understand something: the feelings of economic insecurity, political powerlessness, and lack of support that have brought so many of us to the protests at Liberty Park have been lived by many of the people of color in this country for centuries.

To me, this is the best case for individuals interested in racial justice to become passionate about or at least competent in economic issues. Most racial justice advocates certainly recognize that economic problems like poverty and other forms of inequality disproportionately affect members of oppressed races. The 9.1% unemployment rate that people have been screaming about is actually lower than the unemployment rate typical in the Black community.

Despite the overwhelming importance of economic issues to racial justice — as well as gender justice and GLBTQ justice — precious little time is devoted to those issues among radical or leftist communities. Sure, you have some fairly superficial capitalist critiques. Someone might talk about wage slavery or whatever. That is all well and good. But I am talking about diving into some of the more boring, but arguably more practically important, issues like the Federal Reserve’s inflation target or monetary stimulus.

I don’t know if economic and monetary policy is too boring or has been coded as too white and too male, but the neglect of those issues is a serious problem for radical communities. Most in the community can usually talk about financial institutions stealing from people, but precious few can really go into the technical details of how it is done.

That is not to say that all racial justice advocates need to be able to explain what the Fed’s Operation Twist was and the theory behind it — people specialize in different things. But, I do wonder if the time spent reading yet another article or book on problematic language that is racist or marginalizing (which invariably says almost nothing new) could sometimes be better spent on becoming more competent on economic issues. You know, for the sake of pursuing racial justice.

What is good for the economy?

I am always impressed by the way common words and phrases prevent substantive discussion of important issues. The phrase that is currently getting on my nerves is “good for the economy.”

What exactly is good for the economy? The economy is after all an abstraction, a way that we describe systems of production and distribution (among other things). How do you know what is good for an abstract system? Commentators who rely on this unfortunate phrase obviously do not mean something so absurd as “good the economy” in a literal sense. But teasing out what they do mean is not always easy.

On television news — especially local news — the state of the economy is always measured by the stock market. If the Dow went up, it was a good day for the economy, or so it is reported. But this makes very little sense. The rise and fall of the Dow is — at least theoretically — only an indicator of investor speculation on the future profitability of corporations within the Dow index. It tells us nothing really about production and distribution right now.

Even if we give some credit to those expectations as reliable indicators of what will happen, it is certainly not clear why rising profitability is “good for the economy.” It is good for investors of course since rising profitability increases dividend payments and the price they can command for their stock holdings. But for those who do not hold much stock, rising profitability means nothing at all, and could even be a bad thing.

For instance, firms can increase profits by driving down wages. The Dow would go up, but only because wages go down. Is this good for the economy? Well, that again goes back to the original question: how can something be good for an abstraction? It is good for certain people who are actors in the economy, at least in terms of their wealth increasing. But it would also be bad for other actors in the economy, namely workers.

More serious commentators seem to describe things as “good the economy” if they cause production to expand and the economy to meet its potential output. This too is a questionable way to talk. As the last 40 years in the United States demonstrates, rising productivity does not necessarily improve the lives of even the majority of the population. When the benefits of increased production almost solely flow to the super-rich, is increased production really “good for the economy?”

What this “good for the economy” discussion does is mask and prevent real discussions about production and distribution. The question is not whether something is “good for the economy,” but whom it is good for? Economic events affect populations — classes — differently.

Suppose for example that economic growth was better maximized by extreme inequality. Would that in and of itself mean that extreme inequality is “good for the economy?” Of course not. We could imagine a world with slightly less growth that is distributed far more equitably such that the overwhelming majority of people are better off than they would be in the extremely unequal maximum-growth economy. So which model then would be “good for the economy?”

That is not to say that everything needs to be couched in terms of how an action affects individuals on a class level. But at minimum, people should say what they mean. If by good for the economy, you mean something generates more economic growth or higher profits, the benefits of which could all flow to the top 1%, then say that. Don’t say “good for the economy.” The phrase has no coherent meaning, and discussions of economic policy and philosophy would be better served if it — and its converse, “bad for the economy” — was annihilated altogether.