The Wall Street Protests
I agree with Chris Hedges when he says that these folks are the best of society; I also think the crowd at Goldman Sachs and their ilk are the worst: bloodsuckers and leeches, to put it as politely as I can. Personally, I hope the protest grows from 200 to 2 million, and affects every city in the land. I hope it succeeds…but this is where I start to have certain problems. What is, in fact, the goal? What would success look like in this case? It’s not altogether clear; and beyond a desire to have an economy not run by vampires, by a gangster elite, the protesters’ message is rather muddy.
On one level, it would be great if the protesters could put it on their signs, and say it directly to the American public: socialism; we want a socialist economy. It’s not exactly the way to win friends and influence people in the U.S., and I’m not sure that is what they really want anyway. But there’s at least this, that they want a fairer society, one that does not have a huge gulf between the top 1% and the rest of us. Some form of redistribution of wealth, that presumably would resurrect aspects of the New Deal that the GOP has striven to destroy since Ronald Reagan (and actually, before). After all, we have millions now thrown out of their homes, millions with no prospect of a job, millions living in tent cities and on bread lines, millions without any health insurance, and so on. Re-instigating things such as the Glass-Steagall Act of 1934, real union strength, collective bargaining, workers’ benefits—all of this would be to the good, and I’m assuming that this is on the protesters’ agenda.
The problem is that we did have all this once, and to be sure, it was a much fairer and healthier society; but it was still capitalism. This, as most historians will tell you, was FDR’s historic role: he wanted to save capitalism, and he did. In the end, the mental framework, that of a society and way of life based on greed, was still the same. It was just that with the New Deal there were some constraints in place, and it is those that were unraveled in the ensuing decades. But as I argue in Why America Failed, greed has been the touchstone of the American experiment since 1584, since the earliest colonization of the continent (for its resources); it didn’t suddenly emerge 400 years later with Ronald Reagan and Gordon Gekko. Asked, on one occasion, what it was that the working man wanted, labor leader Samuel Gompers was quite explicit: “More.” Socialism doesn’t envision a different type of system; it envisions the same system with the goodies spread around more evenly.
That some labor unions have indicated their support for the protesters is therefore not surprising. Nor am I condemning them: in the face of Reaganism and Gekkoism run riot, fighting against a 1%-99% split in the wealth is obviously necessary. But when the dust settles, it will still be the United States, with the 400-year-old ideology of the United States; even if we could get the New Deal back, the slogan would still be More. Even so-called progressives think the American Dream is where it’s at. They see no problem with “growth” at all. They just want to extend its benefits to everyone. But suppose—radical thought—that the American Dream was the problem, not the solution? Unfortunately, the ideology of the Dream, of an endless frontier, casts a long shadow over all of us, so that grasping this possibility is quite difficult even for the most intelligent Americans.
Case in point: an article in the 10 October 2011 edition of The Nation by Robert Borosage and Katrina vanden Heuvel entitled “Can a Movement Save the American Dream?” The authors rightly describe how the very rich have screwed the rest of us out of the A.D., and argue that we need to restore it—redistribute wealth and benefits so that every American can live it. But again, there is no recognition that this Dream is conceptually grounded in the notion of a world without limits; that it is the core of what America is and has always been about; and that it is (as a result) the rock upon which we are now foundering. In spite of the identification (or excoriation) of this ideological pathology by a rather long list of eminent historians, including David Potter, Louis Hartz, C. Vann Woodward, Richard Hofstadter, William Appleman Williams, and Jackson Lears, “progressives” just don’t get it, any more than neoliberals do. Writing in the New Republic nearly twenty years ago, Lears stated that “myths of progress continue to mesmerize intellectuals at all points on the political spectrum, from The Nation to the National Review.” Thus Williams repeatedly pointed out that the Dream was based on a program of endless economic expansion, which eventually made imperialism, and thus the suffering of millions, inevitable. Cornell University economist Douglas Dowd made his own opinion of our way of life explicit in a book he published in 1974: The Twisted Dream. As the anthropologist Gregory Bateson argued many years ago, there is a great difference between the “ethics of maxima” and the “ethics of optima,” and the U.S. is definitely addicted to the former: “growth”. A more accurate word for it might be “cancer.” In recent times, only Jimmy Carter had the courage to tell the American people that this was the vision of those who were spiritually empty, and his audience wasted no time in voting him out of office in favor of a man who told them they could and should have it all; that the A.D. was Life Itself.
So I don’t really know what the protesters’ goals are, and I’m not sure they do either, beyond shipping Lloyd Blankfein out to Antarctica, to live among the penguins. The problem is that historically speaking, protest against the system is not really against the system as such. We like to talk in terms of a multicultural society, but women, blacks, Hispanics, union leaders, you name it: they all really share the same vision. The goal is to get my group a bigger cut of the pie; it’s not to suggest that the pie is rotten. The environmental movement excepted, there is very little thinking in America about getting beyond “growth” and “progress,” beyond a purely materialist-consumerist society, and this certainly applies to the poor as well. As John Steinbeck famously remarked, in the U.S. the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
One protest leader who did understand the spiritual dimension lacking in all this was Martin Luther King. The story might be apocryphal, but one black colleague of mine told me that just before he died, King said to Harry Belafonte that he sometimes had the uneasy feeling that his activism was only serving to “herd people into a burning church.” Sure, he was saying: we might be able to get black people a larger share of the pie, of the American Dream; but the pie is an inferno, a hellish way of life.
Are the protesters saying that?
(c)Morris Berman, 2011