Why Occupy Wall Street?
By Michael Kleen
October 26, 2011
We live in an age of protest. In this age, activists have been seized by the conviction that whoever shows up with the most people has the better idea. Rather than vote in elections, organize political action committees, support candidates, write letters to the editor, start businesses, or donate to charities, activists have instead chosen to promote their ideas by camping out in parks, holding signs, yelling through bullhorns, and trampling public and private property. “Occupy Wall Street” has become the latest of these misguided efforts.
In an attempt to paint their movement with the widest possible brush, the Occupy Wall Street protestors have chosen the slogan, “We Are the 99 Percent,” but this slogan could not be further from the truth. While successful at capitalizing on the anger, frustration, and resentment of everyone who suffered at the hands of the financial disaster of 2008, the Occupy Wall Street movement (if it got its way) would drag all of us down to ruin. By directing rage at some of the most productive elements of society, Occupy Wall Street will accomplish nothing but fanning the flames of financial and political crisis.
The truth is, a slogan like “We Are the 99 Percent” is designed to create an “us versus them” mentality that obscures social complexity and creates the illusion of widespread support. By dividing America between 99 and 1 percent of wage earners, Occupy Wall Street is fighting a straw man: a cartoon created to provide an object for the masses to direct their rage against. The same people who criticized George W. Bush for saying “You are either with us or with the terrorists” are now saying, “You are either with us or with the 1 percent.” But who are the “1 percent” we are told to despise?
Listening to the rhetoric of the protestors, one would get the impression that America is divided between 1 percent who are wealthy bankers and 99 percent who are poverty stricken beggars living off handfuls of sawdust washed down by stagnant rainwater. You might be surprised to learn, however, that if you make between $344,000 and $400,000 or more a year, you are part of the 1 percent. Furthermore, only 14 percent of these top wage earners work in the financial sector. 31 percent of them are executives and managers, and 15.7 percent are medical professionals. These Americans earn nearly 17 percent of the nation’s income and pay roughly 37 percent of its income tax. So the “99 percent” includes anyone making under $344,000 a year, which does not exactly qualify you to be impoverished or politically marginalized.
Outwardly, the Occupy Wall Street movement claims to be protesting social and economic inequality, corporate greed, corporate power, and corporate influence over government, all of which have been mainstays of radical left wing protestors since, well, at least the early 1800s. In their fantasies, government is a pure and benevolent force that would create a paradise on earth if not for the influence of private industry and banks (in other words, capitalism). The financial disaster of 2008 and the subsequent recession has opened up an opportunity for them to find sympathizers in mainstream America, and Occupy Wall Street is their attempt to galvanize popular support around their agenda.
Capitalism, however, has lifted more people out of poverty than any other force in human history. Private individuals, working industriously to support themselves and their families, have created products and services that have made all of our lives better, healthier, and more prolonged than at any other point in history. In contrast, it has been said that “Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” Government may have a role as arbiter and protector of the peace, but it produces nothing and its social experiments have only exacerbated the problems they were created to relieve.
Because the Occupy Wall Street protestors want to curtail corporate power by strengthening the government’s stranglehold on the private sector, they would replace one problem with an even worse problem. In other words, blinded by an ideology that vilifies capitalism and finds no fault in government, they are only seeing one side of the issue. In truth, the only way to curtail corporate influence in government without extinguishing the engine of prosperity would be to curtail the size and scope of government, since the corporate structure would not exist without government.
Fundamentally, rhetoric against the “1 percent” is rooted in the misplaced frustration and anger of those who believe that a man is robbed of his rights if he does not have everything he wants, and that he is deprived of equality if he sees anyone have more than he has. If, as sociologist William Graham Sumner warned a century ago, we do not resist the divisive rhetoric of the kind espoused by this latest round of protests, which pits one group of Americans against another, “the fairest conquests of civilization, with all their promise of solid good to man… may be scattered to the winds in a war of classes, or trampled underfoot by a mob which can only hate what it cannot enjoy.”