By Alan Bean
Bloggers quickly learn that most readers snap up posts on the hot stories of the day, so by now I should have written something on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Thus far, the OWS people haven’t addressed the issue of mass incarceration, and I don’t expect that to change. The big issue that has drawn thousands of people into the streets is economic inequality. Some OWS protesters want to do away with free market capitalism; others simply resent living in a plutocracy where the politicians function as lap dogs for the wealthy and only well-financed opinions receive a public airing.
This resentment has been hanging in the air for decades, of course, but the economic meltdown of 2008 built a roaring fire under the winter of our discontent. Everything is melting. We see the very people responsible for the current fiasco assigned to key positions in Barack Obama’s cabinet and we are outraged. These people signed off on the housing bubble and turned a blind eye to the massive fraud in the economic sector that kept the bubble afloat for so long. They have been tainted by ubiquitous iniquity and they have demonstrated their incompetence, so why are they still calling the shots? Why are they shaping public policy? Why is the Tea Party intent on cutting their taxes and catering to their every whim?
The questions keep coming but no answers are in short supply. So, if a few thousand young people take to the street in protest, the more power to them. But what, exactly, are they trying to accomplish here? We all understand the issues behind the protest, but what’s the end game here? If we could sweep away the status quo, what would we put in its place?
“We’re the 99%” the protesters say. The 1% are the corpulent felines who are making out like bandits while the majority wallows in the wake of an economic tsunami. But are 99% of Americans disillusioned with laissez faire capitalism? Not if the last general election is anything to go by. Is 99% of the populus inspired by the Occupy Wall Street people? I suspect not. Most Americans harbor grave concerns about the future viability of the economy, but the supply-side. government-is-the-problem crowd has done an excellent job of marketing its simple dogma. Few Americans resent the multi-national corporations that have down-sized and out-sourced our nation all the way to the poor house, but few can imagine a compelling alternative.
Here’s the problem: our economic troubles have become so daunting that only a massive about-face can save us; but we have been taught to believe that America (for all her manifest faults) is still the best of all possible worlds. Moreover, we have been taught that any attempt to fiddle with the free markets will bring calamity on us all. The Occupy Wall Street people don’t belive that, but a slight majority of the 99% do.
Is the government a marionette in the hands of big business; or is the government an expression of the popular will? Or have we become so thoroughly brain-washed by a heavily financed pro-business propaganda machine that my contrast between big business and the popular will has become a distinction without a difference? If most Americans have been taught to believe that government is corrupt and incompetent while the business community is the true and only engine of prosperity there can be no alternative to the status quo, no matter how dismal it appears.
There is a direct connection between dismantling mass incarceration and job creation. If the United States cut its prison population by half, we would still incarcerate our own citizens at three times the rate of other western democracies. But if we can’t create millions of jobs for poorly educated and largely unskilled people in a big hurry, we are in no position to cut the prison population by half.
In short, we need a massive, government-sponsored job creation program for which, at the moment, there is little public support. Even the Occupy Wall Street people are cynical about government. How can a government controlled by corporate cash be expected to invest trillions of dollars in a colossal make-work project for poor people?
Most of the people flocking to the Occupy Wall Street banner have been negatively impacted by the collapse of the mortgage bubble. Homes have been repossessed. Promising careers have been derailed. But does anyone have the heart to propose a solution? A handful of anarchists, socialists and libertarians have signed off on radical solutions to the current mess, but in mainstream America, fear stalks the heartland. We hold our political leaders in utter contempt, corporate America stands discredited and the church is silent.
The prevailing passion for small government is a cry of despair. Most Americans have concluded that the glory days are over, that every nickel spent on poor people produces a dime of dysfunction, and that the corporate landscape (ugly though it may be) cannot be altered. We don’t like the corporate gods we have fashioned for ourselves, but they’re all we’ve got. A few hardy Christians have made the golden calf a symbol of their protest. Good for them. But for most of us, that calf is the graven image of choice. It’s all we know.
Oddly, government is the answer. Not the plutocratic parody of democracy we witness on the evening news; I’m talking about government of the people, by the people, for the people. If the FDR administration could set millions of Americans to work on a crumbling infrastructure in the heart of the Great Depression, we can do the same. But we only get what we ask for, and I don’t hear the Occupy Wall Street people asking for much.
The protestors are proud of their agenda-free advocacy. They’re mad as hell and they aren’t going to take it any more. I understand. But so long as they make no demands, so long as they are completely disengaged from the sloppy mechanics of organized politics, they can have no lasting impact.
Sure, they take the attention away from the Tea Party acolytes for a while (and for that they should have our undying gratitude), but do they represent real hope for tomorrow? I don’t think so.
Protest is appropriate, no doubt about that. But if we’re looking for long-term solutions we must engage politically. How do we create jobs? Specifically, how do we create millions of decent low-end jobs that pay a survival wage?
To date, people of color haven’t been prominently involved in the Occupy movement. There are many reasons for this. White liberals generally come from affluent families and have a hard time engaging with poor people and the problems they face. Occupy Wall Street will become a relevant political force when the unhip, the unwhite, the uneducated, and the unfortunate join the ranks. Then the “we’re the 99%” placards will ring true.